The Spaces of Myth. The Spaces of Rite.

Plants are by no means neutral, and neither is our relationship to them. Through my fieldwork, I’ve noticed that some of the gardeners tend to treat the garden as an a-political place (after all, growing food is the one thing that brings people together, they say). The garden is a place that you can go without taking a stance. It is natural, and therefore it is just. In this way, the garden is very similar to the notion of community. It is obvious and a priori. It is the lost unity to which we must return.

But by gardening in certain ways and in certain contexts, aren’t we acting out a set of ideas about the ideal place and the good life? By gardening within context, aren’t we saying something which in some way “takes off” from the contextual to become universal? Perhaps this is gardening’s greatest power – a power which can be harnessed for good or bad. It takes the experiential and the contingent, the sensual and the personal, and transposes it into the social and the cosmological, the coherent and the natural. When considered as a ritual, gardening takes not just any stance – it takes a mythical stance.

Malinowski and the Trobriand Islanders

If gardening is the rite, then what is the myth? This is the question which social theorists like Malinowski and Durkheim once asked. These functionalists believe that “[m]yth provides a ‘charter’ or justification for facts in the present day social situation.” It is a “tale that considered in isolation, has all the appearance of fantasy [but] is seen to ‘make sense’ when related to its social context” (Leach 1961:386,387). In this sense, myth is an elaborate justification. It is a story that we tell ourselves to crystallize on the level of ideas what we do on the level of action.

Malinowski retells the origin myth of the Trobriand Islanders, in which a hero named Tudava emerges from the earth and travels among the islands, carrying with him gardening crops and magic. The various stories present a common theme which relates to the actual distribution of crops among the islands to a mythical past. Where Tudava is well received by other islanders, gardens flourish. Where he is threatened or driven away, gardens struggle and the soil remains barren. In Malinowki’s words, the myths “contain a legendary charter of gardening in general and of the differences in local fertility and custom” (1935:75). Myth justifies rite, and rite produces the conditions for myth. The garden produces at the level of action what the myth justifies on the level of ideas.


Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1935. Coral Gardens and Their Magic. New York: American Book Co.


However, this thesis presents a problem for any student of modern gardening. If myth is the necessary justification of gardening and crop distribution, where are our garden myths? Why is there no Washingtonian Tudava who travels among the eight wards of DC, fertilizing or cursing the various community gardens based on whether the surrounding neighborhood throws him a potluck? I would argue that the success of gardens in Washington, DC is no more certain and no more scientific than the success of gardens in the Trobriand Islands, and therefore in no less need of mythical justification. Do moderns simply lack mythical thought? Or to turn the problem around, why can’t indigenous peoples like the Trobrianders just “tell it how it is?” It doesn’t take a soil test from the Virginia Cooperative Extension to recognize that some soil is good, and some soil is bad. Why do the Trobrianders require such an elaborate mythical explanation? How can we reconcile this problem with Malinowski’s entire legacy, which is devoted to showing how the Trobriand production and distribution system is just as rational as ours, if not more so?

Claude Lévi-Strauss and the Garden of Eden

This is the problem that famed anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss attempted to confront, and it is a problem that we will also have to confront if we are to understand the relationship between garden ritual and mythical thought in our society. Lévi-Strauss abandons the notion that there is a direct connection between myth and rite, and establishes myth not as a justification, but as a distinctive form of linguistic communication. To summarize his definition, myth is a contextualized story that succeeds in transcending its own context. In his own words:

On the one hand, a myth always refers to events alleged to have taken place in time: before the world was created, or during its first stages—anyway, long ago. But what gives the myth an operative value is that the specific pattern described is everlasting; it explains the present and the past as well as the future (1955:430).

What Mr. Lévi-Strauss is saying here is that myth abstracts out a sense of timelessness from chronological history. For example, the archetypical myth can be preceded by the phrase “Once upon a time…” but it is clear to the reader that this “time” is somehow suspended in the cosmological and the universal. By telling a story which is embedded in both plot and language, the myth transcends contextualization. “It is language, functioning on an especially high level where meaning succeeds practically at ‘taking off’ from the linguistic ground on which it keeps on rolling” (Lévi-Straus 1955:430-431).

Lévi-Strauss tries to show by comparison that there is an underlying structure to human mythical thought. Edmund Leach summarizes this method with a metaphor:

[Lévi-Strauss] postulates that the symbolic elements in a myth are analogous to neutral pebbles of diverse colors. One cannot discover what the elements ‘mean’ by any straight forward technique of intuition or verbal interpretation; all that one can do is observe how the pebbles are grouped together into patterns (1961:388).

Figure 2 shows Leach’s application of this method to one of the most well-known garden myths of our society: the Garden of Eden.

Leach_Garden of Eden

Leach, Edmund. 1961. “Lévi-Strauss in the Garden of Eden.” Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences 23:286-96.


It is a confusing chart and frankly I cannot explain it fully, but what it shows, according to Leach and Lévi-Strauss, is that mythical thought is patterned along categorical oppositions which are elaborated through the introduction of new oppositions until the story results in some sort of resolution. The implication of this is that mythical thought has not disappeared in our modern society, it has simply been applied toward different things like history and politics. We must admire Lévi-Strauss’s noble thesis: that, whether “primitive” or “modern,” “man has always been thinking equally well” (1955:444).

However, what in the world does a chart like this tell us about the actually existing garden¹ in which we live and work? What does it actually tell us about a community garden, an Ottoman garden, or California’s “Garden of the World?” Does myth really have nothing to do with actually existing space? Leach and Lévi-Strauss would say that this is not the point – that instead the diagram is supposed to illustrate the structure of mythical thought. But what is the point if it tells us next to nothing about mythical action?!! The story of the Garden of Eden doesn’t really mean a lot unless we can show how its structure is enacted and re-constructed in the garden today.

The Actually Existing Garden and the Space of Myth

So how do we overcome this divide in the garden between myth and rite, idea and action? Perhaps Lévi-Strauss listened a little too closely to the linguists, who are so intent to place language in a privileged position above all other social acts as the sole medium of human thought. But are our tongues really our only method of symbolic communication? Don’t we also communicate through our bodies, our landscapes, our artifacts, and our rituals?!! Aren’t these just as symbolic, and by enacting them aren’t we in some ways thinking? Instead of giving language such a dominant position in a hierarchy of symbolic thought processes, we should understand that language is itself a social action embedded within an ecology of communication between both humans and non-humans. In this sense, thought is itself an action.

This view resolves the problem of myth and rite in the garden, and in anthropology in general. It states that myth and ritual are intimately related, but it does not repeat the functionalist thesis that myth does on the level of thought what rite does on the level of action. Instead, what I am saying is that myth and rite are fundamentally the same thing – communicative actions whose structure and meaning succeed in “taking off” from the contextual grounds on which they keep rolling. From this perspective, rite is mythical, as myth is ritual.

When we look at the garden, we can consider it a spatial myth – one which is articulated simultaneously through several different modes of communication. Michel Conan writes briefly about myth in contemporary allotment gardens (similar to the garden I work with).

Let us delve a little into this aspect of life offered by the allotment gardens since we are not used to thinking that modern men, who are supposed to be all too rational, could still be creators of mythical discourse. Both the association of gardeners and the garden allotment itself offer a miniature image of an enchanted rural society… Hence we may look at these gardens and at the social practices that they foster as a whole, as social rituals that contribute to the maintenance of shared beliefs about the good society and about the mythical past that they are supposed to emulate (1999:199-200).

The garden is a place where ideas about nature, history, rurality, authenticity, and “the good life” are negotiated not only through language, but through our sweat and bodily interaction with each other and landscape. It has its own categorical oppositions and contradictions, which we can explore and illuminate. Although the myth(s) of the modern urban garden may be less tidy or obvious than that of Tudava among the Trobriand Islanders due to the differentiation and fragmentation of our society (Douglas 1966), this does not mean that they are any less mythical.


Conan, Michel. 1999. “From Vernacular Gardens to a Social Anthropology of Gardening.” Perspectives on Garden Histories: 181-204.

Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger: An analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & K. Paul.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1955. “The Structural Study of Myth.” The Journal of American Folklore 68(270):428-444.

Leach, Edmund. 1961. “Lévi-Strauss in the Garden of Eden: an examination of some recent developments in the analysis of myth.” Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences 23:386-96.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1935. Coral Gardens and Their Magic: A Study of the Methods of Tilling the Soil and of Agricultural Rites in the Trobriand Islands. New York: American Book Co.


¹I hope it is becoming clear at this point that I am using “the garden” liberally as both a metaphor and metonym for social life in general.


  1. Really interesting! I liked the Triobriand story a lot. Does modern gardening really lack myths, though? Early America certainly had myths of a sort, in the form of the tall tales and folk stories and such. We no longer ascribe the success of gardens to those legends, but could one argue that ideas such as community, inner peace, balance, etc., serve as catalysts for the action of gardening in the same manner that the myth of Tudava was incentive for the rites of the Triobriand people? In that sense, those ideas of community or peace, or whatever propels people toward gardening, would serve as the myths, not in the sense that they are false or foolish, but in the sense that they are the ideas that compel the action of the garden.