Flowers in Mythology: 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. Codebooks 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 codebook but also the ability to recognize blooms.

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 bloodshed 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 ill a state of perfection.


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.

The Language of Flowers (Sunflower)
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Clytie, who was either a water nymph or a princess of the ancient city of Babylon, fell in love with Apollo, the 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.


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 Ares and 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.



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