Literature: The Rose in Myths & Legends
There are countless myths and legends in which the rose appears and in almost every country in the Northern Hemisphere we find examples of it on coins, coats of arms, flags, banners, seals, paintings and objets d’art.
Legends concerning the rose are entwined with Gods, Kings, Princes of the Church and Saints as well as with Brahma, Buddha, Mohammed, Vishnu, Confucius, Zoroaster, several Popes, the Crusaders, Nero, Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, St. Francis of Assisi, Elizabeth of Hungary, Mary Queen of Scots, St. Vincent, Venus, Cupid, Zephyrus, Aphrodite and many more. Some of the more delightful of these legends may be briefly told as follows.
Asia In the oldest religious and spiritual works in Zend (Avestan), in the teachings of ancient Persia and in Sanskrit, the superb literature of ancient India, the rose always plays a symbolic role in the creation of the world and of mankind. Vishnu, the supreme God of India, formed his bride, Lakshmi, from 108 large and 1,008 small rose petals. Thus, the rose early became a symbol of beauty.
Greeks & Romans
While the Greeks and Romans dedicated the rose to the Gods, the Persians, in their poems and paintings, associated it with the nightingale. Once the flowers complained in Heaven that their Queen, the Lotus blossom, slept by night. In order to bring about a reconciliation, Allah named the white rose Queen of Flowers. The nightingale was so enamored of the beauty of the rose that she flew down to embrace it, and thereby pierced her breast with its sharp thorns. From the drops of her blood falling upon the earth grew new roses and from that day there were red roses in Persia.
According to one Moslem legend, the rose sprang from the beads of sweat of the Prophet Mohammed. In another they came not from the Prophet, but from the perspiration of a lady named Joun whose appearance was white at dawn but rosy at midday.
It has often been said that, in the beginning, roses were without thorns and that these only appeared through the wickedness of mankind, after the Fall and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.
A young maiden was to be burned at the stake in Bethlehem. As the flames reached up around her, she prayed for God’s help and at once the flames were extinguished. From the embers sprang red roses and from the unfired sticks, white roses.
While no myth or legend mentions any specific variety of rose, the moss rose has been connected with the Blood of Christ, in the belief that His wounds dripped onto moss while He hung upon the cross.
The oldest evidence of the rose comes from legends and poetry which give us proof of the existence of the rose and its cultivation in Ancient Greece.
Here Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, was seen as the creator of the rose. In one tale Adonis, her lover, was mortally wounded, when hunting, by a wild boar. She hastened to his side and from the mixture of his blood and her tears grew a superb, fragrant, blood-red rose. In another version, Adonis was more superficially wounded and Aphrodite, while running to him, scratched herself on the thorns of a rose bush. Her blood started to flow at once and the white flowers on the bush turned to red. Finally, there is a story which tells us of the origin of the white rose: Aphrodite was born of sea-foam and from this foam, wherever it fell to the ground, grew white rose bushes.
The pattern of the Greek legends is closely followed by those which developed in Rome. In one Venus was loved by Adonis, but also desired by Mars, the God of War. Mars decided to have Adonis killed, but, at the last moment, he was hurriedly warned by Venus. In her haste, she let her foot slip in a rose bed, from the blood which flowed from the scratches onto the ground sprang up red roses.
Flora, the Goddess of Spring and of Flowers, one day found the dead body of her dearest and most beautiful nymph; inconsolable, she begged all the Gods to come to her aid to change the dead body of her loved one into the most beautiful flower which would be recognized as Queen of all Flowers. Apollo, God of the Arts, gave her the breath of life, Bacchus bathed her in nectar, Vertumnus gave her fragrance, Pomona fruit, and Flora herself finally gave a diadem of petals, and thus the rose was born.
Cupid, one of the Gods of Love, knocked over, with his wing, a bowl of wine standing on a table beside Bacchus; from this pool of wine on the ground came a rose bush. The rose was also consecrated to Venus as the symbol of beauty.
There is one particularly delightful story which is as follows: The God Zephyrus loved Flora so much that he changed himself into a rose because the Goddess had no interest other than flowers. When Flora saw the rose, she kissed it and thus fulfilled Zephyrus’ wish.
And it is said that the very word “rose” originated when Flora, the Goddess of Flowers, in pain upon being struck by Cupid’s arrow, was unable to properly pronounce the word Eros but made it sound like “ros”. From this the word “rose” becomes a synonym for Eros; both in Rome and in Greece it is the symbol of youth, of vitality, love, beauty and the fruitfulness of nature.