Plant Myths Self-Guided School Visit Activity Pre-Visit Activity

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J. Paul Getty Museum
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Plant Myths Self-Guided School Visit Activity
Pre-Visit Activity

Use this activity to prepare students for the "Plant Myths" activity that you will guide them through on your class visit to the Getty Villa.

Download the following items from the activity page on the Getty Web site:

• Slideshow: Architecture and Gardens at the Getty Villa (focus on slides 24–49)

• Map of the Getty Villa

• A myth featuring a plant to read aloud. We include several myths here (see attached):

  • Myth of Persephone and the Pomegranate Seeds

  • Myth of Athena and the Olive Tree

  • Myth of Paris and the Apple

• Image of the following works of art

  • Mixing Vessel with Triptolemos, Greek, about 470 B.C.

(includes images of Hades and Demeter)

  • Pomegranate, Greek, 600 - 575 B.C.

  • Sarcophagus representing a Dionysiac Vintage Festival, Roman, A.D. 290–300

Activity Steps

Use slides 24–49 of the Architecture and Gardens at the Getty Villa slideshow to show your students images of plants at the Getty Villa and teach them the names of these plants. Read a myth about plants to students (see following pages), or choose another myth that features a plant.

Step 1

Explain to your students that during their visit to the Getty Villa, they will be working on a self-guided lesson called "Plant Myths." They will learn about how nature was perceived by people in antiquity, and how plants were incorporated into mythological stories. In this pre-visit activity, they will listen to a myth featuring a plant and identify its literary elements, then view some plants and works of art they will see at the Getty Villa.

Step 2

Ask your students if they can define a myth (a myth is a traditional, typically ancient, story dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes, that serves to explain aspects of the natural world or delineate customs or ideals of society). Tell students that you will be reading them a myth featuring a plant and ask them to listen for the following: the name of the plant featured in the myth; the setting, characters, and plot of the story; and the natural phenomenon that the myth explains.

Step 3

After reading the myth to students, discuss the elements of the story with them. Can students identify superhuman characters in the myth, such as gods, goddesses, or heroes? Can they identify the plant at the center of the myth? Did students recognize a natural phenomenon that was explained in the myth?

Step 4

Discuss the role of the plant in the myth. Show students an image of the plant they have identified, as well as a work of art depicting the plant, or the myth:

  • Myth of Persephone and the Pomegranate Seeds

    • Slides 43 and 44 of the slideshow discuss pomegranates

    • Pomegranate, Greek, 600 - 575 B.C.

    • Mixing Vessel with Triptolemos, Greek, about 470 B.C.

(includes images of Hades and Demeter)

  • Myth of Athena and the Olive Tree

    • Slides 30–32 of the slideshow discuss olives and include an image of an olive tree and two works of art with olive branches.

  • Myth of Paris and the Apple

    • Slides 28 and 29 of the slideshow discuss apples and include an image of an apple

Step 5

Use slides 24-49 in the slideshow to introduce students to the Herb Garden at the Villa, and the plants and works of art depicting plants that they will see during their visit to the Villa. You can also prepare students by showing them an image of the Sarcophagus representing a Dionysiac Vintage Festival, which they will see at the Getty Villa, and discussing the role of grapes in ancient life (see slides 33 and 34).

Myth of Persephone and the Pomegranate Seeds
Excerpted from:

Russell, William F. Classic Myths to Read Aloud: The Great Stories of Greek and Roman Mythology, Specially Arranged for Children Five and Up by an Educational Expert. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1989, pp. 19–25.

The Origin of the Seasons
Demeter [deh-ME-tur], the great earth mother, was goddess of the harvest and of all growing things. Tall and majestic was her appearance, and her hair was the color of ripe wheat. It was she who filled the earth with grain, for it was she who ripened the fruit and who saw to it that the grain grew tall and that the pastures were sweet and bountiful. In her honor, white-robed women brought golden garlands of wheat as first fruits to the altar. Planting, reaping, threshing, winnowing—these she watched over and cared for, and hard-working farmers honored her with songs and feasts. All the laws that the farmer knew came from her: the time for plowing, what land would best bear crops, which was fit for grapes, and which was to be left for pasture. She was a goddess whom all called “the great mother” because of her generosity in giving to humankind the necessities of life.
Although Demeter found joy in her duties and being served and honored by all the mortals on earth, still more did she love and cherish her only daughter, the beautiful Persephone [purr-SEFF-uh-nee]. Persephone was as young and fresh as the spring itself; her demeanor was always cheery, and when she was not helping her mother oversee the planting or the harvest, she frolicked about the countryside with her friends the nymphs, dancing and singing and weaving garlands of wildflowers, while the valleys rang with their laughter and mirth.
Now it happened that these joyous sounds seeped down and down to the darkest regions of all—the gloomy and foreboding Underworld, the land of the dead, which was presided over by Hades [HAY-deez], who was a brother of the great Zeus [ZOOSE]. Hades had long sought a mate who would live with him in his gloomy kingdom, but every maiden he asked had refused, and so he remained alone—bereft of all companionship save that of the dead souls who inhabited his dreary domain. But the sounds of joy and gaiety that issued now from the beautiful Persephone caused Hades to want her for his mate beyond all others. Indeed, so strong was his desire that he beseeched the mighty Zeus to grant him this favor and allow him to spirit the maiden away to live with him in his kingdom below. And Zeus, out of brotherly affection, and with no word of any kind to Demeter, did grant Hades’ request and allowed a mother’s greatest joy to be stolen from her, never to return.
That very day, while Persephone and her playmates danced and reveled in a particularly bountiful meadow, a black cloud swept down upon them from the east, and so swiftly did it advance that no one could tell its cause or content. Only when it was too late did they see the hideous and terrifying figure of Hades and his ghostly chariot that was pulled by four coal-black and menacing steeds. In an instant the lord of the Underworld had grabbed the unsuspecting maiden, and clutching her tightly, he drove the horses to breakneck speed, for he feared that Demeter could pursue him while he remained on the surface of the earth. Soon the chariot came to a narrow fault in the land where, at Hades’ command, a chasm opened before them, and they plunged headlong through the earth’s crust and down and down as the opening closed behind them, sealing off the light of the sun and sealing Persephone’s hopes of ever rejoicing with her friends or feeling the loving touch of her mother again.
Bitter was the grief of Demeter when she heard the news that her daughter had been mysteriously swept away, though no one could tell her where the maiden had been taken. Veiling herself with a dark cloud, she sped, swift as a wild bird, over land and ocean for nine days, searching everywhere and asking gods and mortals alike, but none could offer her any news or hope. Even the birds, who know what happens in the hills and the fields, knew only of Persephone’s disappearance and nothing of her whereabouts. In abject despair, Demeter turned to Phoebus [FEE-bus] Apollo, who sees all things on earth as he pulls the sun across the sky behind his golden chariot.
“Yes, I have seen your daughter,” said the god at last, “Hades, with the consent of Zeus, has taken her as his queen, to dwell with him in the land of mist and gloom. She struggled, but her strength was no match for his, and at his command they were swallowed up by the earth to reside forever in the dark below.”
When Demeter heard this, she fell into deep despair, for she knew that she could never rescue Persephone if Zeus himself had ordained that Hades should have his wish. She did not care anymore to plead her case in the palace on Olympus, nor did she care for anything but to spend her days alone, grieving over the loss of her only child. She took on the form of an old woman and wandered about the earth, seeing only its sorrows, finding no joy in anyone or in any place. To her, all was misery; all hope was lost.
Now it happened that during the months of her wandering, Demeter did not, indeed could not, attend to her duties as goddess of all growing things. And, without divine aid and blessing, the grasslands and pastures withered, the cattle died, the earth turned dry, and the birds feasted off the seed corn that would not sprout in arid soil. The gods looked down and saw that a great famine had descended upon the land and that mortals had even begun to neglect their offerings and sacrifices, for they could no longer spare the gods what little they had for themselves.
Zeus heard the cries and lamentations rising from those who suffered on earth, and he heard the persistent entreaties from the gods asking that he end the famine and allow the mortals to resume their sacred offerings. And so he appointed the goddess Iris [EYE-ris] to descend to earth on a rainbow and tell Demeter to return to her duties and restore the crops and pastures to the earth. Dazzling Iris swept down from Olympus and found Demeter still in mourning, still in the garb of an old woman, still without care for her duties or for humankind. Iris offered her beautiful gifts and whatever powers among the gods she chose, but Demeter would not lift her head to listen. Still, Demeter was not blind to the strength of her position, for she realized that Zeus needed her powers, and that only through the powers of Zeus could she ever hope to see her daughter again. Her reply to Iris was both a threat and a bargain: She would neither set foot on Olympus nor let anything grow on earth unless and until Persephone was restored to her from the kingdom of the dead.
When Iris reported this proposition to Zeus, he knew what he must do, and so he sent Hermes [HER-meez] of the golden sandals to the dark reaches of the Underworld, there to tell Hades that Persephone must be set free to return to the light and to her mother on earth. The messenger found her, pale and sad, sitting beside Hades upon his throne. She had neither eaten nor drunk since she came to the land of the dead. But upon hearing the edict of almighty Zeus, she sprang up with joy, while the dark king became darker and gloomier than ever. Though he could not disobey the command of Zeus, Hades was crafty to the last, and he implored Persephone to eat and drink with him before they parted. Joyous that she was, she could not refuse his request, and although she was eager to begin her ascent, she took a pomegranate [POMM-uh-gran-et] from him to avoid further argument and delay; indeed, she ate only seven of its tiny seeds. But for some strange reason, even this satisfied Hades and he bade her farewell as Hermes took her with him up and up and finally into the light and the warm air.
When Demeter saw Hermes and her daughter, she gushed with joy unknown, and Persephone embraced her mother with a passion unable to be put into words, and so the two caressed each other and sobbed their mutual love in complete happiness and understanding. Demeter was first to speak, saying, “Did you, my darling daughter, eat or drink anything at all during your stay in the Underworld?” And Persephone replied, “Nothing, Mother, until Hermes came for me, and then only seven seeds of a pomegranate.”
“Alas, my daughter! Woe has befallen both of us again!” wailed Demeter, her grief now as intense as her joy had been just moments ago. For now the extent of Hades’ deceit became clear as Demeter revealed the irreversible decree of the Fates: Whoever tasted of food in the kingdom of the dead shall be lost forever to the world above. Thus the Fates had decreed, and even Zeus was powerless to alter their law. Yet Persephone had not eaten the pomegranate, only seven small seeds thereof, and surely she could not be condemned for eternity by seven small seeds. This was the nature of Demeter’s appeal to almighty Zeus, and its reasons and fairness moved Zeus to compromise: Although he was powerless to change what the Fates had determined must be, he was able to interpret their decree. And so he ruled that because Persephone had eaten only the seeds of the pomegranate, she must only spend a month each year in the land of the dead for each of the forbidden seeds she had eaten. For seven months each year, therefore, she must dwell in the Underworld with Hades, as his queen, and the remaining five months she may spend with her mother on earth.
And so it is each year that for seven months Persephone is lost to Demeter, and for this time Demeter mourns, and trees shed their leaves, and cold comes to the earth, and the land lies still and dead. Persephone herself is pale and cold and sad, and she rules with Hades over the icy souls that inhabit the lifeless and bleak environs that know not laughter nor warmth nor hope. But after those seven months Persephone returns to the upper air, her mother is glad, and the earth rejoices. The crops spring up, bright, fresh, and green in the plowed land. Flowers unfold, birds sing, and young animals are born. Everywhere the heavens smile for joy or weep sudden showers of gladness upon the earth, and life abounds, bursting from every corner, renewing the world and all its people.
Myth of Athena and the Olive Tree
Excerpted from:

Russell, William F. Classic Myths to Read Aloud: The Great Stories of Greek and Roman Mythology, Specially Arranged for Children Five and Up by an Educational Expert. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1989, pp. 11–14.

The Gift of Athena
Long, long ago, when this old world was a very young place, and when the few people there had just begun to live together in groups for their own protection, the great gods selected the places for humans to build their cities. They looked down upon the earth, through the clouds that shrouded their home on the very peak of the high mountain call Olympus [oh-LIMM-pus], and they chose the sites that would provide everything mortals needed to live and to prosper.
Now, each god and goddess was eager to have a great city built in his or her honor, and so the prime locations—the very best places for the great cities to be built—came to cause much bickering and jealousy among the deities, for all wanted a great city built in their honor, a city whose people would worship that particular god or goddess above all others.
It happened that great Zeus [ZOOSE], the king and ruler of all the gods, had found a spot on earth that appeared to be absolutely ideal for the building of a noble city; indeed, he foresaw that the city that would be built there would someday become the noblest city on earth. Well, you can imagine that all the gods and goddesses wanted this city for their own, and you would be right. But the two who wanted it most of all were Athena [uth-EE-nuh], the goddess of wisdom, and Poseidon [po-SYE-dun], the god of the seas and rivers. Now, Athena was one of Zeus’s daughters, but Poseidon was great Zeus’s brother, and Zeus did not want to disappoint him, either. Poseidon appealed to Zeus, saying that this location would provide the city with the greatest natural harbor in all the world and destine it to be a great seaport. Therefore, as god of the sea, it was only right that he, Poseidon, should be its chief god. But Athena argued just as earnestly that the greatness of the city would not lie in its commerce, but rather in the respect its people would someday have for art and learning. As goddess of wisdom, therefore, she should be its guardian.
Zeus, at last, decided upon a way to end this quarrel and to choose, fairly, between the two. He called for a great council to be held on the very site of the new city, and there, with all the gods and goddesses arrayed before him, Zeus spoke from his golden throne in a clear and commanding voice. “Listen,” he said, “to the will of Zeus, who judges now between Poseidon and Athena. The city that is desired by each shall bear the name of that god who shall bring forth from the earth the better gift for the mortals who will dwell here. If Poseidon’s gift be judged more useful, this city shall be called Poseidonia [po-sye-DOE-nee-uh], but if Athena’s gift be deemed the better, the city shall forever be known as Athens.”
Upon hearing this, Poseidon arose in all his majesty, and he stuck his trident (that is, the long, three-pronged spear that he always carried)—he struck this trident hard into the ground right where he stood. The earth shook violently all around until, at last, a great crack opened up in the surface. Out of this streaming chasm leaped a magnificent horse, his powerful white body fully arrayed in battle gear, a warhorse like none had ever seen before. “Behold my gift,” said Poseidon, “and call the city after my name, for who can give these mortals a better present than the horse, which will ensure their protection from all their enemies.”
But Athena looked steadfastly with her keen gray eyes at the assembled gods, and she stooped slowly down to touch the earth where she stood. She said nothing but continued to gaze calmly on that great council. Presently they all witnessed a small shoot growing from the ground where Athena had touched her hand. It grew swiftly and in minutes had sprouted thick and luscious boughs and leaves; higher and higher it rose until green fruit appeared on its clustering branches. “My gift is better, O Zeus, than that of Poseidon,” she said, “The horse he has given shall bring war and strife and anguish to these mortals and their children, but my gift—the olive tree—is the sign of peace and plenty, of health and strength, and the pledge of happiness and freedom. Is it not more fitting, then, that the city to be founded here should be called after my name?’
Then the voices of the gods rose into the air as one: “The gift of Athena is better by far, for it is the token that this city shall be greater in peace than in war, and nobler in its freedom than in its power. Let the city be called Athens forevermore.”
Hearing their appeal, Zeus then bowed his head as a sign of his judgment that the city should be named for Athena. The earth trembled as he rose from his golden throne to return to the halls of Olympus. Athena stood gazing over the land that her victory had given her, and she decided that it was here that she would make her home. “Here,” she said, “my children will grow up in happiness, and they will come to understand that freedom is the greatest gift a people can receive. And when the torch of freedom has gone from Athens, it will be passed on to other peoples in other lands throughout the world.”

Myth of Paris and the Apple
Excerpted from:

Russell, William F. Classic Myths to Read Aloud: The Great Stories of Greek and Roman Mythology, Specially Arranged for Children Five and Up by an Educational Expert. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1989, pp. 153–157.

The Judgment of Paris
There was once—long, long ago—a mighty city that lay across the Aegean [ih-JEE-an] Sea to the east of Greece, a city of high towers and strong walls, a city that stood on a hill overlooking the seashore, a city of proud people ruled by a benevolent king named Priam [PRY-am], a city known as Troy. Now Troy was a city well favored by the gods, and its position and power brought it many riches, including much gold, fine statues, and the swiftest horses in all the land. King Priam, too, was much blessed, not only by having the love of his people, but also by having a son who was the strongest and bravest warrior in all of Troy, and the warrior’s name was Hector.
But Hector was not Priam’s only son, for when the king was well into his years, his wife, Queen Hecuba [HECK-you-bah], bore him another son, a babe of such beauty that neither his father nor his mother could understand the prophecy that Hecuba would give birth to a burning torch that would one day set fire to the city and burn the topless towers of Troy to the ground. Though they did not understand, they knew that the prophecy would come true, unless they could prevent the destruction of their city by destroying this beautiful child first. And so, with very heavy hearts, they directed one of their servants to take the child into the woods on Mount Ida and leave him there to starve or be killed by wild animals, and this the servant did.
Somehow the baby survived for five days, until a shepherd found him and took him home, where the baby was raised as the shepherd’s own child. As he grew toward manhood, the child’s wondrous features grew also, so that all who had ever seen him tending flocks on the mountain slopes agreed that this youth, whom the shepherd had named Paris, was the most stunningly handsome mortal man in all the world; moreover, he was also the best runner and the best hunter and the best archer among all the country people who lived in the lands near the mountain. And here Paris stayed, not knowing of his royal parentage, until one fateful day when he was summoned by the gods. And it happened this way.
A wonderful wedding was about to take place on a high mountain in Greece; King Peleus [PEE-loose] of Thessaly [THESS-uh-lee] was marrying the beautiful sea nymph [NIMFF] named Thetis [THEE-tiss], who was much loved by the gods. Indeed, all the gods and nymphs and Muses [MEW-zez] were in attendance—all except for Eris [EAR-iss], the goddess of discord, for she alone had not been invited. This exclusion enraged Eris, and in her anger she decided upon a plan that would disrupt the entire ceremony. When all the guests had gathered, Eris secretly entered the hall and set down in their midst an apple made of the brightest gold, with an inscription saying simply: FOR THE FAIREST OF ALL.
Well, it did not take long for that golden apple to be claimed, but just as Eris had hoped, there were several in the assemblage who though it should rightfully be theirs—each thought that she was the most beautiful of all. Hera [HAIR-uh] (the wife of Zeus), Athena [uth-EE-nuh] (the goddess of wisdom), and Aphrodite [aff-row-DYE-tee] (the goddess of love) each claimed that she was the fairest of all and, therefore, should have the apple. The mighty Zeus, who would usually settle such disputes swiftly and decisively, knew well that to give the prize to one of the three claimants would offend the other two, and so he chose not to be the judge in this case, but to have another assume the role. In a commanding voice he announced, “My messenger, Hermes [HER-meez], will fly all three of you over the sea to Mount Ida, where there dwells the handsomest of all mortals, who is known as Paris. He shall judge which of you is most beautiful and deserves to have the golden apple for her own.”
You can imagine how surprised young Paris was as he sat on the mountain slope watching his flock, when, as if in a flash, Hermes appeared before him with his three immortal companions. The goddesses were all so lovely that when they asked Paris to say which was the most beautiful, he became perplexed and could not decide. Thereupon, each goddess took him aside separately and made him certain promises in the hope that he would decide in her favor. Hera, for instance, promised to make him the most powerful of kings if he would choose her as fairest. Athena offered to make him the wisest of all men if he would select her. Aphrodite, though, promised to give him the most beautiful woman in the mortal world for his wife, and the mere thought of such a gift so appealed to Paris that he, then and there, awarded the apple to the goddess of love. Of course, Hera and Athena were greatly offended, and they secretly vowed to punish the youth for his rash judgment, but Aphrodite had become his ally and would watch over him and protect him with all her power from this time on.
The gods then left as suddenly as they had arrived. Over the next several days, with the urgings and guidance of Aphrodite, Paris made his way to the city of Troy, where he was quickly recognized by King Priam and Queen Hecuba as their own son, who they had thought had perished long ago. In spite of the prophecy that Paris would one day bring about the destruction of Troy, they welcomed him to the city and back into their royal family as the youngest prince of Troy and the brother of the brave and powerful Hector.

© 2009 J. Paul Getty Trust

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