The Rose — Funeral Flower and Symbol of Silence

The word rose comes from the Latin term rosa which is expressive of red colour. Therefore, etymology would make the rose a red flower par excellence, yet there are anomalies such as the white rose, the yellow rose, and we even speak of a red rose. 

Because of the universal popularity of this favourite blossom, all countries have variations on rose myths, tales, and legends. However, it might be said that this beautiful flower universally symbolises the heavenly Spirit of the Highest. In Greek mythology, Cupid spilt nectar on Olympus, roses springing forth where the nectar touched the ground. Greek legend tells us that Aphrodite, while hastening to her wounded lover Adonis, trod on a white rosebush. The thorns tore her feet, and her sacred blood dyed the white rose forever red. Aphrodite then presented the rose to her son Eros, the god of love. Similarly, in Roman mythology, the rose sprang from blood spurting from Venus’ foot while she was pursuing Adonis. Hence, the rose became Venus’ symbol, representations showing the goddess of love crowned with roses. Both Eros – which in English and French happens to be an anagram of ‘rose’the Greek god of love, and Hymen, the Greek god of marriage, are often represented crowned with rose wreaths. It is, therefore, easy to understand why the rose became symbolic of love and beauty. 

The Romans cultivated roses on a large scale, using them to strew on banquet hall floors, to fill cushions, to decorate their gods’ shrines and their heroes’ monuments, to make wine and perfume, and to garland those honoured in Roman society. In Islamic belief, roses sprang up from the ground wherever the perspiration from Mohammed’s brow dripped. In Hindu myth, Lakshmi was born of a rose, and it is said by the Brahmins that the Almighty has his permanent abode in the heart of a silver rose. The Persian word for rose is gul, meaning the ‘Mighty God’. 

Common to many myths is the belief that the rose stemmed from spilt blood. According to Christian tradition, the flower’s red colour originated from the fact that the Crown of Thorns worn by Christ was made of rose briars. Another legend holds that the red rose sprang from the extinguished branches heaped around a virgin martyr at Bethlehem. 

The ancient Greeks and the Romans attached great value to the rose as a funeral flower, especially planting it on lover’s graves. In Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, cemeteries are still often referred to as rose gardens because of this flower’s significance for the dead. In England and on the Continent, white roses were traditionally planted on a virgin’s tomb, whereas red roses were considered appropriate for the grave of any person distinguished for goodness and benevolence. (See Chapter VI, Flowers and Trees for the Dead).

Regarding the various superstitions attached to it, the rose is one of the most ominously significant of all flowers. If a rose shed its petals, this was believed to be a portent of death, especially when someone was wearing or carrying the flower. In a similar vein, roses blooming out of season were once looked on with misgiving as this foretold misfortune in the year ahead. In Germany, a white rosebush ‘putting out’ unexpectedly was believed to be a sign of death in the nearest house and to dream of a white rose or withered roses was thought to prognosticate death. 

The rose as a symbol of silence, confidentiality, and secrecy is indicated by the Latin phrase sub rosa, ‘under the rose’. The ‘rosette’ still often found gracing the ceilings of older homes is a remnant of this symbol. As an emblem of secrecy, roses also decorated the ceilings of council chambers and banquet halls to remind everyone that what was spoken there was confidential or sub rosa, even if it happened to be sub vino, in other words, ‘under the influence of wine’. As a symbol of silence, carved roses were also commonly placed over confessionals in churches. The origin of the phrase sub rosa is probably to be found in Greek myth, relating that Eros, the god of love, gave a rose to Harpocrates, the god of silence, to induce him to keep the amours of Aphrodite a secret. However, some maintain that the true origin of the saying sub rosa comes from the perpetual plotting and counter-plotting between the Houses of York and Lancaster during the War of the Roses (1455–1485). Supporters of the House of Lancaster habitually wore a red rose, and those of the House of York, a white rose in their caps. When an important matter was communicated by either party to a friend in the same quarter, it was said to be ‘under the rose’, in other words, to be kept secret. 

After the War of the Roses, the flower became one of the foremost heraldic emblems. This war, lasting for thirty years, ended with the establishment of the House of Tudor on the English throne. Therefore, the Rose of Tudor, represented as a white rose on a red one, is the flower emblem of England today. 

From the common practice during the Middle Ages of naming collections of verse after bunches of flowers – hence anthology, from the Greek word for ‘flower’ – comes the rosary. From the Latin term rosarium, meaning ‘rose garden’, the rosary is a beadroll used by Roman Catholics for keeping count of their repetitions of certain prayers. The term was probably encouraged by the symbolic association of roses with the Virgin Mary, the red and white Mystical Rose appearing early in the Christian period as an emblem of the Virgin. Others maintain that the word ‘rosary’ is derived from fact that the first chaplets being made of rosewood.

Because the rose is a symbol of love, lovers attach importance to the flower’s colour. Red roses are symbolic of passion, whereas white roses stand for pure love and yellow roses for infidelity.


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