Flowers in Mythology

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Flowers in Mythology

Theme Overview

From new life to death, from purity to passion, flowers have had many meanings in myths and legends. Swelling from tender bud to full bloom, flowers are associated with youth, beauty, and pleasure. But as they wilt and die, flowers represent fragility and the swift passage from life into death. Specific flowers such as roses and lilies have assumed symbolic significance in mythology.

Major Myths

Many flowers from around the world appear in mythology. The anemone, carnation, hyacinth, lily, lotus, narcissus, poppy, rose, sunflower, and violet are among those that are associated with stories or customs from various cultures.

Anemone Greek mythology linked the red anemone, sometimes called the windflower, to the death of Adonis (pronounced uh-DON-is). This handsome young man was loved by both Persephone (pronounced per-SEF-uh-nee), queen of the underworld (land of the dead), and Aphrodite (pronounced af-ro-DYE-tee), goddess of love. Adonis enjoyed hunting, and one day when he was out hunting alone, he wounded a fierce boar, which stabbed him with its tusks. Aphrodite heard the cries of her lover and arrived to see Adonis bleeding to death. Red anemones sprang from the earth where the drops of Adonis's blood fell. In another version of the story, the anemones were white before the death of Adonis, whose blood turned them red.

Christians later adopted the symbolism of the anemone. For them its red represented the blood shed by Jesus Christ on the cross. Anemones sometimes appear in paintings of the crucifixion.

Carnation Composed of tightly packed, fringed petals of white, yellow, pink, or red, carnations have many different meanings. To the Indians of Mexico, they are the “flowers of the dead,” and their fragrant blooms are piled around corpses being prepared for burial. For the Koreans, three carnations placed on top of the head are a form of divination, or predicting the future. The flower that withers first indicates which phase of the person's life will contain suffering and hardship. To the Flemish people of Europe, red carnations symbolize love, and a kind of carnation called a pink was traditionally associated with weddings.

Hyacinth The Greek myth of Hyacinthus (pronounced high-uh-SIN-thuhs) and Apollo (pronounced uh-POL-oh) tells of the origin of the hyacinth, a member of the lily family. Hyacinthus, a beautiful young man of Sparta, was loved by the sun god Apollo. One day the two were amusing themselves throwing a discus, a heavy disc used in Greek athletic games, when the discus struck Hyacinthus and killed him. Some accounts say that Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, directed the discus out of jealousy because he also loved Hyacinthus.

While Apollo was deep in grief, mourning the loss of his companion, a splendid new flower rose out of the bloodstained earth where the young man had died. Apollo named it the hyacinth and ordered that a three-day festival, the Hyacinthia, be held in Sparta every year to honor his friend.

Lily To the ancient Egyptians, the trumpet-shaped lily was a symbol of Upper Egypt, the southern part of the country. In the ancient Near East, the lily was associated with Ishtar (pronounced ISH-tahr), also known as Astarte (pronounced a-STAR-tee), who was a goddess of creation and fertility. The Greeks and Romans linked the lily with the queen of the gods, called Hera (pronounced HAIR-uh) by the Greeks and Juno (pronounced JOO-noh) by the Romans. The lily was also one of the symbols of the Roman goddess Venus.

In later times, Christians adopted the lily as the symbol of Mary, who became the mother of Jesus while still a virgin. Painters often portrayed the angel Gabriel handing Mary a lily, which became a Christian symbol of purity. Besides being linked to Mary, the lily was also associated with virgin saints and other figures of exceptional purity of body.

Lotus The lotus shares some associations with the lily. Lotus flowers, which bloom in water, can represent female sexual power and fertility as well as birth or rebirth. The ancient Egyptians portrayed the goddess Isis (pronounced EYE-sis) being born from a lotus flower, and they placed lotuses in the hands of their mummified dead—dried and preserved before burial—to represent the new life into which the dead souls had entered.

The Language of Flowers

In Europe during the late 1800s, the idea that flowers represented feelings grew into a system of communicating through flower arrangements. Code books guided those who wanted to compose or read floral messages. According to one book, the apple blossom meant “Will the glow of love finally redden your delicate cheeks?” Field clover signified “Let me know when I can see you again.” A red rose petal meant “Yes!”, a white one “No!” Spurge, a green flower, carried the message: “Your nature is so cold that one might think your heart made of stone.” Users of this elaborate language needed not only a code book but also the ability to recognize blooms.

In Asian mythology the lotus often symbolizes the female sexual organs, from which new life is born. Lotuses appear in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology. Hindus refer to the god Brahma (pronounced BRAH-muh) as “lotus-born,” for he is said to have emerged from a lotus that was the navel, or center, of the universe. The lotus is also the symbol of the goddess Padma (pronounced PAD-muh), who appears on both Hindu and Buddhist monuments as a creative force.

The holiness of the flower is illustrated by the legend that when the Buddha walked on the earth he left lotuses in his trail instead of footprints. One myth about the origin of Buddha relates that he first appeared floating on a lotus. According to a Japanese legend, the mother of Nichiren (pronounced NITCH-er-en) became pregnant by dreaming of sunshine on a lotus. Nichiren founded a branch of Buddhism in the 1200s. The phrase “Om mani padme hum,” which both Hindus and Buddhists use in meditation, means “the jewel in the lotus” and can refer to the Buddha or to the mystical union of male and female energies.

Narcissus The Greek myth about the narcissus flower involves the gods' punishment of human shortcomings. Like the stories of Adonis and Hyacinth, it involves the transfer of life or identity from a dying young man to a flower.

Narcissus (pronounced nar-SIS-us) was an exceptionally attractive young man who scorned the advances of those who fell in love with him, including Echo (pronounced EK-oh), a nymph (female nature deity). His lack of sympathy for the pangs of those he rejected angered the gods, who caused him to fall in love with his own reflection as he bent over a pool of water. Caught up in self-adoration, Narcissus died—either by drowning as he tried to embrace his own image or by pining away at the edge of the pool. In the place where he had sat gazing yearningly into the water, there appeared a flower that the nymphs named the narcissus. It became a symbol of selfishness and coldheartedness. Today psychologists use the term “narcissist” to describe someone who directs his or her affections inward rather than toward other people.

Poppy A type of poppy native to the Mediterranean region yields a substance that can be turned into opium, a drug that was used in the ancient world to ease pain and bring on sleep. The Greeks associated poppies with both Hypnos (pronounced HIP-nohs), god of sleep, and Morpheus (pronounced MOR-fee-uhs), god of dreams. Morphine, a drug made from opium, gets its name from Morpheus.

Rose The rose, a sweet-smelling flower that blooms on a thorny shrub, has had many meanings in mythology. It was associated with the worship of certain goddesses and was, for the ancient Romans, a symbol of beauty and the flower of Venus, the Roman goddess of love. The Romans also saw roses as a symbol of death and rebirth, and they often planted them on graves.

When Christians adopted the rose as a symbol, it still carried connections with ancient mother goddesses. The flower became associated with Mary, the mother of Christ, who was sometimes addressed as the Mystic or Holy Rose. In time, the rose took on additional meanings in Christian symbolism. Red roses came to represent the blood shed by the martyrs who died for their faith; white ones stood for innocence and purity. One Christian legend says that roses originally had no thorns. But after the sin of Adam and Eve —for which they were driven out of the Garden of Eden —the rose grew thorns to remind people that they no longer lived in a state of perfection.

Sunflower Sunflowers turn their heads during the day, revolving slowly on their stalks to face the sun as it travels across the sky. The Greek myth of Clytie (pronounced KLY-tee) and Apollo, which exists in several versions, explains this movement as the legacy of a lovesick girl.

Clytie, who was either a water nymph or a princess of the ancient city of Babylon, fell in love with Apollo, god of the sun. For a time the god returned her love, but then he tired of her. The forlorn Clytie sat, day after day, slowly turning her head to watch Apollo move across the sky in his sun chariot. Eventually, the gods took pity on her and turned her into a flower. In some versions of the myth, she became a heliotrope or a marigold, but most accounts say that Clytie became a sunflower.

Violet The violet, which grows low to the ground and has small purple or white flowers, appeared in an ancient Near Eastern myth that probably inspired the Greek and Roman myth of Aphrodite (pronounced af-ro-DYE-tee) and Adonis. According to this story, the great mother goddess Cybele (pronounced SIB-uh-lee) loved Attis, who was killed while hunting a wild boar. Where his blood fell on the ground, violets grew.

The Greeks believed that violets were sacred to the god Ares (pronounced AIR-eez) and to Io (pronounced EE-oh), one of the many human loves of Zeus (pronounced ZOOS). Later, in Christian symbolism, the violet stood for the virtue of humility, or humble modesty, and several legends tell of violets springing up on the graves of virgins and saints. European folktales associate violets with death and mourning.

Flowers in Context

Many plants bloom for only a few weeks, often in the spring or early summer, and the individual flowers tend to be short-lived. At their peak, flowers are delicate, colorful, and frequently sweet-scented. From these qualities emerge the symbolic meanings of flowers and, in some cultures, floral goddesses.

Many cultures connect flowers with birth, with the return of spring after winter, with life after death, and with joyful youth, beauty, and merriment. Yet because they fade quickly, flowers are also linked with death, especially the death of the young. Together the two sets of associations suggest death followed by heavenly rebirth, which may be one reason for the tradition of placing or planting flowers on graves. People also offer flowers to their gods at shrines and decorate churches with them.

In many societies, certain colors of flowers have acquired symbolic meanings. White blossoms, for example, represent both purity and death, while red ones often symbolize passion, energy, and blood. Yellow flowers may suggest gold or the sun. In the Chinese Taoist tradition, the highest stage of enlightenment—or supreme understanding and perception of the world—was pictured as a golden flower growing from the top of the head.

The shapes of flowers also have significance. Blossoms with petals projecting outward like rays of light from the sun have been associated with the sun and with the idea of the center—of the world, the universe, or consciousness.

The Aztecs, who dominated central Mexico before the early 1500s ce, had a goddess of sexuality and fertility named Xochiquetzal (pronounced soh-chee-KATE-sahl), which means “flower standing upright.” She carried a bouquet of flowers and wore a floral wreath in her hair. Fragments of surviving poetry show that the Aztecs recognized the double symbolism of flowers as emblems of both life and death:

The flowers sprout, and bud, and grow, and glow... . Like a flower in the summertime, so does our heart take refreshment and bloom. Our body is like a flower that blossoms and quickly withers.... Perish relentlessly and bloom once more, ye flowers who tremble and fall and turn to dust.

The Greeks also had a floral goddess, Chloris (pronounced KLOR-iss), who was married to Zephyrus (pronounced ZEF-er-uhs), the god of the west wind. The Romans called her Flora (pronounced FLOR-uh) and honored her each year with a celebration known as the Floralia. She was often portrayed holding flowers or scattering them; her blossom-crowned image appeared on coins of the Roman republic.

Flowers in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

As mentioned above, ancient art and literature often associate certain gods with specific flowers.

Additionally, gods associated with fertility and the seasons are often pictured surrounded by flowers. In more recent times, flowers were used as symbols of the impermanence of beauty, as in sixteenth-century French poet Pierre Ronsard's “Ode to Cassandra.” The poet likens Cassandra to a rose that is beautiful now, but will soon wither. In the past century, flowers have mostly been depicted in realistic and natural ways, without much emphasis on myth. John McCrae's 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields,” which focuses on an image of poppies growing over the graves of those killed during battle in World War I, is a rare modern example of flowers achieving a mythical significance. In the 2003 Tim Burton fantasy film Big Fish, adapted from a novel by Daniel Wallace, the main character somehow gathers all the daffodils (also known as narcissus) within five states and plants them in a field to impress his love.

Even in everyday life, flowers connected to certain myths often retain a special meaning. In Korea, carnations are presented as symbols of gratitude and love to one's parents on May 8, also known as Parents Day. In the United States, pink carnations have become the flower most associated with Mother's Day. In predominantly Christian regions, lilies are closely associated with the Easter holiday, and are often used as decoration during this time. The red rose is still one of the most recognized symbols of love in the world.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

As shown by the myths mentioned here, certain flowers tend to be given mythical significance in many different cultures, while some other flowers are rarely associated with gods, goddesses, or myths. What characteristics do you think help the flowers discussed above to achieve mythic status over other flowers?

SEE ALSO Adonis; Fruit in Mythology; Hypnos; Ishtar; Isis; Narcissus