The Mythological Rose

David Working Out in Williamsburg

There is no denying that as human beings, we sometimes try to communicate with one another using roses. It is a flower ritualized and revered like no other in our history. But what exactly are we trying to say when we choose to say it with rose, and how has its floral message changed with the passage of time? How and why has the rose come to mean what it does to us today?

As part of the ongoing Asphalt Rainbow project, join me as I uncover a series of forgotten inspirational gems from man’s historic relationship with rose. Learn perfumed secrets from the ever-envied “Queen of the Flowers'” multi-petaled past, as I discuss everything from the legendary gardens of Alexander the Great, to the small screen antics of Rose Nylund. This is The #Roseshards Story.

The Rose of Greek and Roman Myth

Venus and Cupid - Lorenzo Lotto (1520s)

Venus and Cupid – Lorenzo Lotto (1520s)

I’ve always been a bit of a mythology geek. Imagine, whether you were of noble or low birth, citizen or slave, these early stories from the streets would have echoed throughout the ears of Ancient civilizations like one giant game of ‘Telephone,’ retold by masses of people and in countless settings. These myths were infectious: epic tales and urban legends telling of the adventures of gods and goddesses… heroes and monsters. These myths became convenient ways of introducing a bit of order into any expanding civil chaos, each story accompanied by an easily relatable moral or proverb. Remember, many members of the population during these times could not read, so secondhand information would have been critical to survival. Practical knowledge like Roman law was repackaged using Roman myths via epics like Ovid’s “The Aeneid.” Myth was also used as a clever way to explain the unexplainable, to offer some understanding of the indescribable mysteries found in mother nature a la the ancient myths of rose found below.

Chloris and the Myth of Rose Creation

Primavera - Botticelli (1478)

Primavera – Botticelli (1478) [notice Chloris on the far right with husband Zephyrus]

In Greek and Roman mythology there is the tale of Chloris, goddess of flowers and springtime (Roman: Flora). As the story goes, early one morning Chloris was out walking when she stumbled upon the lifeless body of a woodland nymph. Saddened by the innocent creature’s fate, Chloris decided to breathe life anew, transforming the nymph’s body into a flower. She called out to Zephyrus, husband and keeper of the west wind, asking him to blow away the clouds in the sky so that Apollo might allow the sun to cast down its warming rays. To this, Aphrodite would add beauty, and Dionysus a nectar of intoxicating aroma… the three Graces further bestowing upon the blossom the gifts of charm, joy, and splendor. All agreed it was the most spectacular of flowers, truly “The Queen of Flowers.” Aphrodite named the flower Rose, dedicating it to her son, Eros, the god of love.

Chloris then called upon Iris and Aurora to spread the word. Iris borrowed a touch of rose’s color, while Aurora painted the morning sky in rose-tinted hues. Upon being presented the rose by Chloris, Eros would offer it as a bribe to Harpocrates (goddess of silence), hoping to cover up his mother’s recent indiscretions. Thus, roses would also come to be associated with silence and secrecy (Latin: sub rosa meaning ‘under the rose’). There are, of course, similar stories in Roman myth involving tales of the goddess Flora, as well as mentions of priests, known as Flamen Floralis, who presided over the many Roman cults dedicated to her. Romans celebrated Flora annually during the festivities of Floralia.

The Rose Myths of Aphrodite

The Birth of Venus - Botticelli (1485)

The Birth of Venus – Botticelli (1485)

The goddess of love, Aphrodite (Roman: Venus) is the source of this second rose myth. According to the Greek lyric poet Anacreon, the white rose first sprang forth during the birth of Aphrodite. As the legend goes, Ouranus was the father of the sky. Ouranus also really hated his Titan son, Chronos, imprisoning him inside the earth. One evening, when Ouranus went to lay with Gaia, mother of the earth (and Chronos), generic prednisone canada Chronos seized the opportunity, attacking his father with a sickle crafted by Gaia. In fact, he rather gruesomely severs Ouranus’ genitalia from his body. As his father’s testicles fall into the sea, Aphrodite is born. And as the sea foam around her touches the earth, bushes of white roses appear. What’s not to love about a castrating myth featuring a flower that would go on to symbolize purity and devotion?

A second rose-scented tale of Aphrodite involves her lover, Adonis, and the myth of how the rose turned red. One day, Adonis was out hunting boar. Ares, jealous of Adonis, had secretly sent the wild boar to harm him. At the last moment, Ares shares this knowledge with Aphrodite, who rushes to warn him. As she hurries to her lover’s aid, she scratches herself on a rose bush, splashing speckles of blood on their soft white petals, turning the blossoms red. Unfortunately, she is too late to the scene, and Adonis perishes from a fatal wound to his thigh. As Aphrodite cries over her lover’s body, her tears fall into the pools of blood surrounding them, and the mixture gives rise to the anemone flower. With such a strong relationship to blood, it is easily understood how the red rose would later be used to honor the martyrs of Christendom.

The Mythological Rose of Cupid and Psyche

Cupid and Psyche - Sir Anthony van Dyck (1639-40)

Cupid and Psyche – Sir Anthony van Dyck (1639-40)

Greco-Romans also had a myth to explain the proliferation of roses across the lands of man: the famous love story of Cupid and Psyche (Greek: Eros and Psyche). As recounted in Apuleius’ “Metamorphoses” (2nd century AD), Psyche was one of three daughters, but the youngest and most beautiful. Suitors began foregoing worship to Venus, choosing instead to worship Psyche, “The Second Coming of Venus.” Their blasphemy angered the love goddess, who then enlists Cupid to help enact her revenge. However, Cupid instead falls in love with Psyche and hatches a plan to steal her away.

At this point, it is revealed that Psyche is cursed, a by-product of Venus’ jealousy. The girl first prays to Ceres for help, then Juno, before finally submitting to the whims of Venus, tortured under the watchful eyes of Worry and Sadness. Venus goes on to subject Psyche to a series of ordeals, the last of which causes her to fall into a deep sleep. To make a long story short, Cupid rescues and eventually weds Psyche. After the ceremony, Jupiter is so delighted by the union that he asks his daughters, the Hours and the Graces, to make everything “glow with roses,” scattering the blossoms about the land. The myth shows what happens when love is wedded to the soul of mankind, and the beauty that such a marriage is capable of producing (represented by the rose).

The Greek Eros is also cited as the culprit behind the existence of a rose’s thorns. Eros loved his roses. One day, while leaning in to kiss his most beloved rose, Eros was stung by a nectar gathering bee hiding inside the flower. Angered and annoyed, he retreats to the arms of his mother, Aphrodite, relaying the tale of his dismay. Not wishing to see her cherished son so distraught, Aphrodite gifts Eros with a magical quill of arrows to help him settle the score. Feeling vindicated, the winged Eros returns to the garden, firing a flurry of arrows down at the rose bushes below. The thorns are seen as the places where his arrows missed their mark.

Other Greco-Roman Rose Myths

Gallic Rose

The Gallic Rose

For even more rose stories from early Greece and Rome, be sure to check out: Persephone’s bouquet (gathering blossoms when abducted by Hades), Medusa and the Rock Rose (angering of Athena), the myth of Rodanthe (angering of Diana), Homer’s “The Iliad” (anointing Hector’s body and adorning Ajax’s shield), the works of Pliny the Elder, Theophrastus, and Ovid (who also recount many early examples of rose-based perfumed potions and remedies).

Until the next #Roseshards chapter


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