Part I - Flowers
Many flowers from around the world appear in mythology. And many cultures connect flowers with birth, with the return of spring after winter, with life after death, and with joyful youth, beauty, and merriment. 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 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.
|Anemone - Greek mythology linked the
red anemone, sometimes called the windflower, to the death of Adonis.
This handsome young man was loved by both Persephone, queen of the underworld,
and Aphrodite, 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 on the cross. Anemones sometimes appear in paintings of the
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. 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 symbolized love, and a kind of carnation called a pink was traditionally associated with weddings.
Hyacinth- The Greek myth of Hyacinthus and Apollo 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 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, also known as Astarte, who was a goddess of creation and fertility as well as a virgin. The Greeks and Romans linked the lily with the queen of the gods, called Hera by the Greeks and Juno 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 chastity.
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 being born from a lotus flower, and they placed lotuses in the hands of their mummified dead to represent the new life into which the dead souls had entered.
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 (Lotus of the Sun) became pregnant by dreaming of sunshine on a lotus. Nichirin 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 was an exceptionally attractive young man who scorned the advances of those who fell in love with him, including the nymph Echo. 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 cold-heartedness. Today psychologists use the term narcissist to describe someone who directs his or her affections towards themselves, rather than toward other people.
Poppy - A type of poppy native to the Mediterranean region yields a substance called opium, a drug that was used in the ancient world to ease pain and bring on sleep. The Greeks associated poppies with both Hypnos, god of sleep, and Morpheus, 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 Romans also saw roses as a symbol of death and rebirth, and they often planted them on graves.
-Some flowers 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 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
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 Venus and Adonis. According to this story, the great mother goddess Cybele 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 Aresand to Io, one of the many human loves of Zeus. 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.
Part 2 - Mythology of Plants coming soon
Encyclopedia of Mythology
Library of Congress
Vintage religious art
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