The Reading Room

Loci Amoeni: Pleasant Places and the Golden Ages in Ancient Poetry: Part One

A common motif throughout ancient poetry from the near-East to the West is that of the tranquil and sacred garden. In particular, gardens play a preeminent role in describing paradise for near-Eastern and Western cultures. In fact, so prevalent are gardens across ancient literature that we even have a term from Latin for a “pleasant place” or locus amoenus.
Where may one spend a pleasant afternoon in such a piquant place, then? Four loci amoeni from three texts from three different literary and language traditions offer suggestions. The first book of the Bible, Genesis, offers Eden in which man knows neither evil nor death. Homer’s Odyssey features Kalypso’s island of Ogygia, which has every sort of fruit tree and where the ground brings forth without tilling. Next Friday, the second part of this post will consider Polyphemos’ anarchic isle of the Cyclopes. Our final example comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which he describes an archetypal and golden first people devoid of defect who live in a place of “eternal spring.”
Eden in Genesis 2:8-17
Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.
(Genesis 2:8-17. NIV tr.)
In the biblical garden of Eden one sees that all is also provided for man within the peaceful place. Though it is said that man "works" the land, this "work" may more be considered as tending to the garden and enjoying it rather than the “toil” man and woman suffer in their post-lapsarian state. In the biblical Paradise there is not yet knowledge of human things like laws, tools, and property, but there is a basic recognition, potentially even unconscious, that the world provides that which man needs. Ogygia and the Isle of the Cyclopes are much the same, more a staging ground for what humans will become than for humans themselves.
Ogygia in Odyssey 5.63-74 and 5.203-213
There was a growth of grove around the cavern, flourishing,alder was there, and the black poplar, and fragrant cypress,
and there were birds with spreading wings who made their nests in it,
little owls, and hawks, and birds of the sea with long beaks
who are like ravens, but all their work is on the sea water;
and right about the hollow cavern extended a flourishing
growth of vine that ripened with grape clusters. Next to it
there were four fountains, and each of them ran shining water,
each next to each, but turned to run in sundry directions;
and round about there were meadows growing with soft parsley
and violets, and even a god who came into that place
would have admired what he saw, the heart delighted within him.
To add to the Edenic nature of Ogygia, one need only look at the similarity between what Kalypso tells Odysseus exists in the outside world and what God sentences man to in Genesis:
"Son of Laertes and seed of Zeus, resourceful Odysseus,are you still all so eager to go on back to your own house
and the land of your fathers? I wish you well, however you do it,
but if you only knew in your own heart how many hardshipsyou were fated to undergo before getting back to your country,
you would stay here with me and be the lord of this household
and be an immortal, for all your longing once more to look on
that wife for whom you are pining all your days here. And yet
I think I can claim that I am not her inferior
either in build or stature, since it is not likely that mortal
women can challenge the goddesses for build and beauty."
(Ody.5.203-213; my emphases)
One sees that a key feature of remaining within a paradise is (1) that one remains immortal or becomes immortal and (2) that one avoids toil or suffering at all, whether it be a Greek, Hebrew, or Roman idea, and (3) that one lives with the earth and neither subjects one's self or others to laws or human conventions. Perhaps such places are too heavenly to exist outside the pages of inspired and hyperborean books.