From antiquity to the great symbols of Christianity, through Middle Eastern culture and fairy tales, here are the stories, myths and legends associated with the most fascinating of flowers.
The rose is a flower unlike any other: it is a symbol full of historical significance and cultural references, encapsulating a host of associations, metaphors and allegorical meanings. It is the flower most linked to the expression of feelings, to the manifestation of emotions, affections and passions. Ambivalent in its form (the purity of its petals contrasts with spines of its stem), it has embodied (and still embodies) conflicting meanings that also depend on its colour. Morphologically linked to the circle, since ancient times it has been linked to themes of birth and rebirth, and the speed of its withering has made it a symbol of death and the fragility of existence. In many cultures it is also a typical symbol of spring, the season that represents eternity in miniature, with the renewal of life blooming after the cold of winter. Typically given as a gift, strictly in odd numbers, between lovers but also to mothers, perhaps for Mother’s Day, it is the most elegant flower and one of the most expensive. Between history and legend, let Swide tell you all you need to know about this emblem of love and many, many other things besides.
While in the Egyptian world roses were the sacred flowers of Isis (they represented pure love freed from its carnal aspect), it was only in the Greco-Roman world that the rose began to show its symbolic and evocative potential. It appears in the myth of Adonis and Aphrodite as a symbol of love that conquers death. The myth says that Aphrodite was in love with Adonis, but the young man was fatally wounded by an attack by a wild boar. As she ran to aid him, Aphrodite was pricked by thorns and her blood caused beautiful red roses to blossom. Zeuswas moved by the scene and allowed Adonis to spend a few months a year in the world of the living. Because of this, the rose was cultivated in funerary gardens and was often used as decoration for graves (to ensure the deceased immortality). Moreover, Greeks also associated it with the cult of Dionysus, as it was said that would prevent drunk people from revealing their secrets and help ward off the unpleasant effects of intoxication. As such, wreaths of roses adorned statues of Dionysus and were also worn around the necks of his followers, the wanton Bacchae. The famous poet Sappho also particularly loved this flower, and she used to associate it with the beauty of girls in her poems.
THE ROMAN EMPIRE
In ancient Rome it was customary to throw rose petals onto the path of the emperor and the crown he wore on his head was also made of roses. Prior to the advent of Christianity, the Romans celebrated a feast calledRosalia (or Rosaria), linked to the worship of the dead (in a period between May and July), which was then converted into what is now the Pentecost of Christianity. In these Roman rites roses were offered to the Mani, the souls of the deceased considered protective deities of the home. The link with the flower remained for a long time: in past centuries, during Pentecost it was customary have rose petals rain down upon the faithful with wads of hay lit to commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit, which came about through flames resembling rose petals. Pentecost is in fact called “Easter of Roses.”
The rose has always been particularly appreciated in Christianity as the symbol of Heaven and celestial bliss, and in particular it is one of the most common emblems of the Virgin Mary (especially the white rose, a symbol of innocence and chastity). Mary is “the rose without thorns” or Rosa Mistica (mystical rose), praised for theImmaculate Conception and her pregnancy without sin. The Rosary, the devotional and contemplative prayer typical of Catholicism, takes its name from the Latin “rosarium” or “rose tree”, associating the repetition of prayers to the image of the crown (or garland) of roses traditionally offered to the Madonna. Because of its beauty, shape and scent, in Christian mysticism the rose is an element that recurs frequently in stories of visions and apparitions, as a manifestation of divine grace. The red rose, conversely, is an ancient symbol of the passion associated with the blood of Christ and his death, wounds and suffering. In this sense, it has been linked to the Holy Grail, the mythical chalice that has been the subject of many legends and stories, and which according to tradition was used by Jesus at the Last Supper.
The rose is also an iconographic attribute of many female saints (St. Dorothy, St. Elizabeth of Thuringia and St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Rosalia of Palermo, St. Rose of Lima, St. Rita, St. Therese of Lisieux), and also certain male saints: St. Stephen wears a crown of roses in the procession of martyrs in Heaven. In Christianity, moreover, the rose is related to confession and spiritual secrets. In the sixteenth century, Pope Adrian VI carved a five-petal rose into the confessional as a symbol of the sacred bond of secrecy that every priest must keep regarding the penitents’ stories. Indeed, the Latin expression “sub rosa” refers to something revealed in absolute secrecy and confidence.
THE MIDDLE AGES
In popular medieval superstition, the rose was the favourite flower of the witches, as it was considered particularly suitable for causing harm to others (perhaps because of the thorns), but it was also the favourite flower of the fairies, who used them to derive happiness and well being for good people. Medieval architecture also testifies to the centrality and the fascination of the flower: Gothic and Romanesque rose windows link the shape of the flower to evocations related to the symbolism of the astral circle, referring to many ancient models, such as the Mesopotamian and Syrian sun wheels, the circle of virtues and the ring of angels.
Just as in Catholicism it represents the blood of Christ, in Islam the rose represents the blood of Mohammed. It is also a symbol of the name of Allah (with circles of petals representing Law, Knowledge and Truth). Even Islamic Middle Eastern poetry and mysticism are full of allusions and symbols connected to the flower. The rose garden is, for example, a very significant image, associated with the highest degree of contemplation, as in the work called, appropriately, The Rose Garden by the poet and mystic Sa’di.
THE ROSE IN FABLES
In The Sleeping Beauty by Perrault, the castle with the dormant princess is protected by intricate rose bushes with thorns so sharp that no one can go beyond them, but which open magically, after a hundred years have passed, to allow the prince to enter and awaken the Princess from her deadly slumber. Perrault later inspired the brothers Grimm, who re-wrote the story as Little Briar Rose (“Dornröschen” in the original German).
In Beauty and the Beast, the protagonist Belinda humbly asks her father for a rose before he sets off on a long journey (while her two sisters had asked for jewels), and it is to satisfy his youngest daughter’s whim that, on his way back, the father enters the gloomy palace of a monstrous creature who can only be released from the curse afflicting him by the goodness and love of Belinda.
Source: Swide, by: Jonathan Bazzi