It’s a sign of how seriously classical imagery and culture underlines western civilization that many of the characters associated with gardens and gardening are derived directly from it. A few like Flora and Ceres, who were major deities, are widely known but have you heard of Pomona? If you have you’ll probably know she’s associated with orchards and fruit. She was actually a nymph, famously beautiful and, because of that, was pursued by many of the gods. However she was devoted to her orchard and spurned all their advances.
And what do you know of Vertumnus? I’d guess not much and if I tell you he was a minor Etruscan deity adopted, like so many others, by the Romans you’ll probably be none the wiser. In fact he was in charge of seasonal change, and generally associated with the growth of plants, gardens and orchards. He had one great advantage over most other gods: he could change his shape and appearance whenever he wished.
So why am I writing about them? Why are they linked together? and who is the old lady in the picture below? Read on to find out…
The story really starts with the Roman poet Ovid who outlines it in Book 14 of his epic poem Metamorphoses. The translation I’m using here is courtesy of AS Klein and the University of Virginia, and the rest of the poem can be found by following the link. The section that tells the story of Vertumnus and his love for Pomona is quite short and so I’ve included it in full, section by section, in italics, so you can skip over it if you want.
In the first section we read of Pomona’s love for her trees and how she cared for them. This led her to live a secluded chaste life in a walled orchard, ignoring all men.
Pomona lived in this king’s reign. No other hamadryad, of the wood nymphs of Latium, tended the gardens more skilfully or was more devoted to the orchards’ care, hence her name. She loved the fields and the branches loaded with ripe apples, not the woods and rivers. She carried a curved pruning knife, not a javelin, with which she cut back the luxuriant growth, and lopped the branches spreading out here and there, now splitting the bark and inserting a graft, providing sap from a different stock for the nursling. She would not allow them to suffer from being parched, watering, in trickling streams, the twining tendrils of thirsty root. This was her love, and her passion, and she had no longing for desire. Still fearing boorish aggression, she enclosed herself in an orchard, and denied an entrance, and shunned men.
But her orchard’s lush vegetation, swelling fruit and sweet scented flowers are the perfect setting for the sometimes less-than-innocent escapades of the gods and demi-gods, and many of them, notably the satyrs pursued her. So too did Vertumnus. However while the others were just lustful they gave up easily and went in search of easier prey but Vertumnus was different. He was truly enamoured so repeatedly changed his appearance and tried again and again to win her attention and affection.
What did the Satyrs, fitted by their youth for dancing, not do to possess her, and the Pans with pine-wreathed horns, and Silvanus, always younger than his years, and Priapus, the god who scares off thieves, with his pruning hook or his phallus? But Vertumnus surpassed them all, even, in his love, though he was no more fortunate than them. O how often, disguised as an uncouth reaper, he would bring her a basket filled with ears of barley, and he was the perfect image of a reaper! Often he would display his forehead bound with freshly cut hay, and might seem to have been tossing the new-mown grass. Often he would be carrying an ox-goad in his stiff hand, so that you would swear he had just unyoked his weary team. Given a knife he was a dresser and pruner of vines: he would carry a ladder: you would think he’d be picking apples. He was a soldier with a sword, or a fisherman taking up his rod.
Often he managed to enter the orchard but always with the same result.
One day, however, he had a brainwave and changed his appearance to that of an old woman. Once admitted to the orchard s/he told Pomona how beautiful she was and even offered some kisses as s/he suggested that even trees were better ‘mated’…
In short, by his many disguises, he frequently gained admittance, and found joy, gazing at her beauty. Once, he even covered his head with a coloured scarf, and leaning on a staff, with a wig of grey hair, imitated an old woman. He entered the well-tended garden, and admiring the fruit, said: ‘You are so much more lovely’, and gave her a few congratulatory kisses, as no true old woman would have done. He sat on the flattened grass, looking at the branches bending, weighed down with autumn fruit. There was a specimen elm opposite, covered with gleaming bunches of grapes. After he had praised it, and its companion vine, he said: ‘But if that tree stood there, unmated, without its vine, it would not be sought after for more than its leaves, and the vine also, which is joined to and rests on the elm, would lie on the ground, if it were not married to it, and leaning on it.
Of course, Vertumnus/the old lady went on, I can see that you still are not convinced by the idea of marriage, and I can also see that most of the men, demigods and gods who want you are not worthy. BUT there is one who is different: Vertumnus. I know him very well indeed …
But you are not moved by this tree’s example, and you shun marriage, and do not care to be wed. I wish that you did! Helen would not have had more suitors to trouble her, or Hippodamia, who caused the Lapithae problems, or Penelope, wife of that Ulysses, who was delayed too long at the war. Even now a thousand men want you, and the demi-gods and the gods, and the divinities that haunt the Alban hills, though you shun them and turn away from their wooing. But if you are wise, if you want to marry well, and listen to this old woman, that loves you more than you think, more than them all, reject their vulgar offers, and choose Vertumnus to share your bed! You have my assurance as well: he is not better known to himself than he is to me: he does not wander here and there in the wide world: he lives on his own in this place: and he does not love the latest girl he has seen, as most of your suitors do.
No, she went on, you would be his first and last love, and I promise he will devote himself entirely to you…and even better he is young and handsome, and will be obedient to your every whim. So please take pity on him, and if you’re not sure then listen to this story
You will be his first love, and you will be his last, and he will devote his life only to you. And then he is young, is blessed with natural charm, can take on a fitting appearance, and whatever is ordered, though you ask all, he will do. Besides, that which you love the same, those apples you cherish, he is the first to have, and with joy holds your gifts in his hand! But he does not desire now the fruit of your trees, or the sweet juice of your herbs: he desires nothing but you. Take pity on his ardour, and believe that he, who seeks you, is begging you, in person, through my mouth. Fear the vengeful gods, and Idalian Venus, who hates the hard-hearted, and Rhamnusian Nemesis, her inexorable wrath! That you may fear them more (since my long life has given me knowledge of many tales) I will tell you a story, famous through all of Cyprus, by which you might easily be swayed and softened.’
And then the old lady tells Pomona the story of Iphis, a poor young man who falls in love for Anarexete, a noble maiden, but sadly one with a heart of stone, who mocks and scorns him. Eventually in despair he hangs himself in her doorway. When she sees his corpse on his funeral bier the stone of her heart spreads through the rest of her body, until she has become a statue….[the story is too long to include here in full but to to read it all follow the link above to the translation and scroll down]
And then – abracadabra! Vertumnus abandoned his old lady appearance and resumed his own youthful shape…and guess what Pomona finally fell for him and they were married and lived happily ever after!
When Vertumnus, the god, disguised in the shape of the old woman, had spoken, but to no effect, he went back to being a youth, and threw off the dress of an old woman, and appeared to Pomona, in the glowing likeness of the sun, when it overcomes contending clouds, and shines out, unopposed. He was ready to force her: but no force was needed, and the nymph captivated by the form of the god, felt a mutual passion.
Despite them both being rather obscure deities the story of Vertumnus and Pomona appealed to European sculptors, painters and tapestry designers of from the Renaissance onwards. It was not only a story of the triumph of true love, but carries an often explicitly erotic sub-text too. Being mythological they offered the opportunity to show scenes of voluptuousness, and nudity which were at home in the private apartments of the elite for personal pleasure, but when seen by outsiders could equally be seen and passed off as moralising allegories. Pomona by rejecting even Vertumnus’s constant advances represents virtue whilst Vertumnus by persevering despite constant rejection shows just how difficult virtue is to obtain….
And of course in the process , when you’re not staring at priapic satyrs or bare-breasted maidens being kissed by old ladies then the images that illustrate the story also reveal a lot about gardens and garden design!