I’ve received a lot of very nice email about my Remembrance Day blog entry, and have even heard a rumour that it was extensively quoted in a sermon at an Ottawa church last Sunday. It would be even more exciting if I’d have earned a mention for my naughty behaviour, but no matter, I am honoured and grateful.
On that note, I was trolling the web today and came across some intriguing material about roses. Without being aware of it, my choice of a red and a white rose to mark the occasion was strangely appropriate; could I have tapped into some kind of floral symbolism from the collective unconscious?
The red rose whispers of passion,
And the white rose breathes of love;
O, the red rose is a falcon,
And the white rose is a dove.
~John Boyle O’Reilly
Roses, roses, can’t get enough of those bloody roses. …There is no better allegory for, dare I say it, life, than roses."
~Robert Hunter, lyricist for the Grateful Dead
I think the most common modern association with roses is as a symbol of love and beauty. We’ve all heard the expression, a rose between
A Roman myth tells how a beautiful woman named Rhodanthe, being persistently
pursued by her numerous suitors, sought refuge in the Temple of Diana.
Diana, the goddess and protectress of maidens, became incensed at this
and turned Rhodanthe into a beautiful rose and the suitors into thorns. Reference
But here’s where it gets interesting. There are many more layers of meaning that I was either not, or only vaguely, aware of.
Roses evolved into a symbol of unity in England during the
15th century, when King Henry VII ended the War of the Roses and
adopted the Tudor Rose as the emblem of the new Tudor dynasty — a
combination of the white rose of the House of York and the red rose of
the House of Lancaster. reference: Wikipedia
As a symbol of martyrdom, the rose has few equals in the floral kingdom. A Grateful Dead fan, Professor David Dodd from the University of Colorado elaborates:
When held by a martyr, the red rose signified ‘red
martyrdom’ or the loss of life, and the white rose ‘white martyrdom’ or
"…Throughout ancient Christendom, the red rose
symbolizes the blood and agony of the crucifixion of Jesus. In ancient
Persian mythology, a nightingale’s self-inflicted breast wound turns a
white rose red, changing colors because of the bird’s egocentricity."
"White roses symbolize reverence and humility. In medieval Christian
Europe, Mary is represented by a white rose as a symbol of her purity.
In Wales, white roses represent innocence and silence, and are often
placed on the grave of a young child."
Martin Luther chose a white rose as a symbol of faith (the "Luther Rose", otherwise known as the "Luther Seal"). His explanation:
"…Such a heart should stand in the middle of a white rose, to show that faith gives joy, comfort, and peace. In other words, it places the believer into a white, joyous rose, for this faith does not give peace and joy like the world gives (John 14:27). That is why the rose should be white and not red, for white is the color of the spirits and the angels (cf. Matthew 28:3; John 20:12)…"
Roses were attributed with powers of purification that were put to practical use during the Middle Ages. Reference
- Rose petals were strewn on the floor and used to freshen
clothes. In times of plague, people carried posies for protection (c.f.
"Ring around the rosie").
- The rose was considered a remedy for many
maladies. The dog rose is so named because its root was said to cure
- The rosary is related to the rose (see the intricately carved German
rosary bead at the Cloisters). The rosary chaplet presented to St.
Dominic was scented with roses. Monks’ rosaries may originally have
been made with hardened rose petals.
Alchemists are interested in white and red roses for their yin/yang qualities, in doing whatever it is that alchemists do:
"A lady recently called me with an interest in learning
more about the symbolism of the rose in alchemy, particularly in the
polarity of the red and white roses…. I explained something of the
male/female polarity and how it figures in alchemical work and the
sulphur/mercury pair which predated the later trinity of
The rose has been described as a symbol of "flawed and mortal humanity".
"According to Ambrose, the thorns of the rose were a reminder
of human finitude and guilt as the roses in the Paradise Garden had no
tapestry at the Cloisters depicts a stag (youth) hunted by the hounds
of old age: heaviness, heat, cold, ague, suffering. The stag is
depicted leaping toward a rose bush (with thorns)." reference
A red rose (often held in a hand) is frequently used as a symbol of socialism
or social democracy.
"In 1907, Mary MacArthur of the British Women’s Trade Union League
visited the United States to support the growing women’s labor
movement. During her talks in Chicago, she argued that women must work
for more than just increased wages. Her message was summed up in a
quote she attributed to the Qur’an: "If thou hast two loaves of bread,
sell one and buy flowers, for bread is food for the body, but flowers
are food for the mind." The Women’s Trade Union League probably turned
that thought into the slogan that inspired James Oppenheim’s poem." reference
Of the many socialist/social democratic parties that use the red rose as a symbol, the Swedish Social Democratic Party explains that "the red colour is said to be a sign for the stuggle againt material poverty and the flower for the struggle against the spritual poverty."
The Phillipino party "PDSP" — a little less concise — explains their symbol as "a fist holding a red rose with two green leaves, on a white background. The fist stands for militancy in promoting the authentically humanist values symbolized by the red rose with its green leaves. Justice, liberty, equality, participation, solidarity, the health of the environment, respect for religion, peace, and progress are among the most important of these values."
Our own Pierre Elliott Trudeau — with his strong belief in Canada as a "Just Society" — always wore a red rose in his lapel.
Roses have long been associated with secrecy. In Germany,
Sebastian Brant’s Narrenschiff, [Ship of Fools] of the late fifteenth
century reads: ‘What here we do say, shall under roses stay.’" This Web page, "Roses: History, Legends and Customs" offers some interesting historical perspective on this particular meaning:
The rose had been sacred to Bacchus, god of wine, as
well as to Venus. At banquets for these gods, wealthy Romans would lay
on couches spread with rose petals. Around their necks they wore
garlands of roses. Chaplets of roses crowned their heads.
Reclining on their beds of roses, they ate, drank, and gossiped.
Anything said under the rose – the rose garland hung on the wall or the
rose chaplets on their heads – was sub rosa. This Latin expression
meaning "under the rose" is still a common way of describing something
to be kept secret. But there are other explanations of how the phrase
was attributed to secrecy.
Cupid was said to have bribed Harpocrates, the god of silence, with the
rose to prevent him from revealing the love affairs carried on by
Queen Elizabeth I is said to have worn a rose behind her ear, probably
copied after the Spanish. Some say this was a subtle way of expressing
that the wearer "heard all and said nothing."
There are those who claim the expression was started during the time of
the War of the Roses in 15th century England. There were two taverns
near the Houses of Parliament, one displaying the red rose, the other
the white rose. Each tavern was frequented by adherents of one or the
other faction, and conferences were held in great secrecy. The
participants, in referring to their conversations, would not divulge
their secrets, saying they had taken place "under the rose."
The origins of the name "The White Rose" for the German resistance against the Nazis during WWII is unknown, but I suspect the answer lies somewhere between its symbolism for secrecy and everything else. I think I must have followed their lead in my choice of a flower to honour them, and am intrigued by all the different paths of meaning it opened up. Maybe there is something to this collective unconscious thing. At any rate, it’s kinda deep.
"In gardens, beauty is a by-product. The main business is sex and death."