Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Flowers in African Culture

“ Among the treasures the Egyptians made sure the dead had with them on their journey into eternity were the blossoms of flowers, several of which have been found in the pyramids, miraculously preserved. The equation of flowers and bauty was apparently made by all the great civilizations of antiquity, though some –notably Jews and Early Christians- set themselves against the celebration and use of flowers. But it wasn’t out of blindness to their beauty that Jews and Christians discouraged flowers; to the contrary, devotion to flowers posed a challenge to monotheism, was a bright ember of pagan nature worship that needed to be smothered. Incredibly, there were no flowers in Eden –or, more likely, the flowers were weeded out of Eden when Genesis was written down……….
According to Jack Goody, an English anthropologist who has studied the role of flowers in most of the world’s cultures –East and West, past and present- the love of flowers is almost, but not quite, universal. The “not quite” referes to Africa, where, Goody writes in The Culture of Flowers, flowers play almost no part in religious observance or everyday social ritual. (The exceptions are those parts of Africa that came into early contact with other civilizations- the Islamic north, for example.) Africans seldom grow domesticated flowers, and flower imagery seldom shows up in African art or religion. Apparently when Africans speak or write about flowers, it is usually with an eye to the promise of fruit rather that the thing itself.
Goody offers two possible explanations for the absence of a culture of flowers in Africa, one economic, the other ecological. The economic explanation is that people cant’ afford to pay attention to flowers until they have enough to eat; a well developed culture of flowers is a luxury that most of Africa historically has not been able to support. The other explanation is that the ecology of Africa doesn’t offer a lot of flowers, or at least not a lot of showy ones. Relatively few of the world’s domesticated flowers have come from Africa, and the range of flower species on the continent is nowhere near as extensive as it is in, say, Asia or even North America. What flowers one does encounter on the savanna, for example, tend to bloom briefly and then vanish for the duration of the dry season…….
Maybe the love of flowers is a predilection all people share, but it’s one that cannot itself flower until conditions are ripe- until there are lots of flowers around and enough leisure to stop and smell them.”

From “The Botany of Desire”. Author: Michael Pollan. P. 65-67 New York, 2001

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