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.
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 Christ on the cross. Anemones sometimes appear in paintings of the Crucifixion.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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, 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 (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.
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 coldheartedness. Today psychologists use the term narcissist to describe someone who directs his or her affections inward rather than toward other people.
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.
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.
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