Rose

(Rosa) There are a number of different legends of the origin of the rose, a mirror of the popularity of the plant. In the East, they still say that the first rose was generated either by a tear, or, according to another legend, the sweat, of Mahomet. For that reason Moslems never allow rose petals to lie on the ground. There are two or three Greek myths about the plant. One of them says that the goddess Cybele, to take revenge on Venus, found no better way to do it than by creating the rose, whose beauty she likened to that of the goddess. Another story is again connected with Venus, who was born of the sea. At the same moment, the rose sprang for the first time on earth (Bunyard). Another Greek legend says that prior to the death of Adonis, all roses were white. Venus, while hurrying to Adonis, trod on a rose thorn, and some drops of her blood (or, as yet another version tells, that of Adonis) fell on the petals, and so that the plant became the parent of all the red roses. A Moslem version says the red colour was from the blood of the prophet, and so, of course, it is a sacred flower. Another Greek myth says it was Bacchus who dropped the wine on the rose, while an English legend has it that it was the blood of Christ that made white roses red. A German story tells of its becoming red after Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit. Another German legend says that all roses were originally red, but then Mary Magdalen wept for Christ, her tears fell on a rose and bleached the petals.

A Moslem version of the legend of how the red rose came into being incorporates the famous story of the rose and the nightingale. The flowers complained to Allah that the lotus, then queen of the flowers, slept at night, and they demanded a new queen. Allah answered by creating the white rose, and to protect it gave it thorns. The nightingale fell deeply in love with the new flower, and flying towards it, was pierced by its thorns, and so the white flower was changed to red.

Father Rapin, the seventeenth century Jesuit, quoted another origin legend connected with Greek mythology. It concerns a queen of Corinth named Rhodanthe, who was so beautiful that no-one could look on her without falling madly in love. She had countless suitors, and, wishing to escape them, she took refuge in a temple consecrated to Diana. But three of the suitors, bolder than the rest, followed her there and tried to abduct her. Rhodanthe defended herself and appealed to the people for help. They came, but were so overcome by her beauty that they cried that Diana was no longer goddess of the temple; from then on they would pay homage to the beautiful Rhodanthe. They were on the point of overturning Diana's statue when Apollo, furious at this outrage against his sister, appeared. He turned Rhodanthe into a rose tree, and changed the three suitors into a worm, a fly and a butterfly.

There must be no end to these tales of the origin of the rose. There is yet another that tells of the rose's thorns. When first created it had no thorns, but as man's wickedness increased, so the plant grew them. Others say that the thorns appeared only after the appearance of Adam and Eve. Finally, there is a story in Mandeville's Travels about a Bethlehem girl falsely accused of unchastity, and sentenced to the stake. She called on God to help her and to demonstrate her innocence in the eyes of all. Then she stepped into the fire, and the flames at once died down. Those brands that were already burning changed into red roses, and the others into white.

A familiar piece of Greek mythology is that Eros presented a rose to the god of silence, for the rose has been a symbol of silence since very early times, a belief still with us in the expression sub rosa. It is said that many of the great houses with plaster ceilings had a rose as the central ornament, a reminder that matters talked of at table "under the rose" must not be repeated outside that room. A rose is often out over confessionals in Catholic churches, for the same reason (Ingram). But to be born "under the rose" is said to mean being illegitimate, a rose being also a symbol of secrecy, so the wild rose is sometimes used to signify illicit love (Briggs. 1974). To dream of red roses was said to foretell success in love (Higgins); and florists say that more red roses are sold for St Valentine's Day than for any other day of the year (Baker. 1977).

With all this love symbolism, it is hardly surprising to find roses connected with divinations. Girls would take a rose leaf for each of their suitors, and name each leaf after one of them. Then she would watch them until one after another they sank in the bucket of water into which she had put them. The last that sank would represent the future husband (Napier). Or she could carefully pick a rose and lay it under her pillow on Midsummer Eve, when the future husband would appear in a dream (Higgins). Rather more ambitious is the one that requires the girl to pick a rose at Midsummer, fold it in paper, and put it by till Christmas Day, when she would wear it to church, and the man who would come and take it from her would be her husband (Opie & Tatem).

Roses have connections with death as well as with love. As far back as ancient Greece, they were used at funerals, and tombs were decorated with them, under the belief that they protected the remains of the dead. The Romans also believed this, and they even celebrated a festival of the dead under the name of Rosalia, forerunner of the Roumanian Rousalia (Knight). It was a Welsh custom to plant a white rose on the grave of an unmarried woman (Trevelyan), and it was the practice in parts of England for a young girl to carry a wreath of white roses, and walk before the coffin of a virgin. The wreath would be hung in church after the funeral, above the seat that she had used during her life, till the blooms faded. The church at Abbot's Ann, in Hampshire, has its walls hung with "maidens' garlands" of paper or linen roses; the earliest of them dates from 1716 (Mayhew). It is usually a rose or roses that grow from the graves of two lovers, and they will intertwine. Evelyn mentions "the custom not yet altogether extinct in my own county of Surrey, and near my dwelling, where the maidens yearly plant and deck the graves of their defunct sweet-hearts with rose bushes". The custom was so common in Switzerland that cemeteries were often known as rose gardens there (Mayhew). So great is the connection between roses and the dead that apparently spirits at seances are using roses now as symbols of affection and goodwill (Knight).

If a white rose blooms in autumn, it is regarded in the west of Scotland as a token of an early death for someone. But if a red rose blooms then, it is a sign of an early marriage (Napier). On the other hand a red rose whose petals fall while it is being worn or carried, is death omen (Waring). A Welsh belief was that a summer rose blooming in November or December was a sign of trouble and bad luck (Trevelyan). Throwing rose leaves on a fire brings good luck, according to some (Napier), but the Italian belief was that to scatter them on the ground, more especially those of a red rose, was very unlucky, and would result in an early death (W Jones). For dreaming of roses, see above; dreaming of withered roses means misfortune - what else could it mean? Kentucky superstition insists that dreaming of flowers of any kind means bad luck, but especially so of white roses (Thomas & Thomas). A Dorset belief was that smelling a white rose would be injurious to health, but smelling a red one beneficial (Udal).

The provision of a rose as a condition of tenure was quite widespread. Rent day was often Midsummer Day, as with the Crown & Thistle in Loseby Lane, Leicester. Under a deed of 1626, an annual rent of two pennies and a damask rose is still paid. But the time of payment varied. Some land at Wickham, County Durham, for example, was held by the service of one rose at Pentecost "si opetatur" (if required), and, rather more difficult, the manor of Crendon, Buckinghamshire, was held by the service of one chaplet of roses at Christmas (Blount). Hungerford has a condition of presenting a red rose to the reigning sovereign whenever he or she passes through the town (Berkshire FWI).

The rose was used in Germany as a charm against haemorrhage of every kind. It is not clear what the colour of the rose had to be; presumably it had to be red, in which case the charm must have sprung originally from the doctrine of signatures. The virtue of a charm, though, lay in the words spoken, and there are several versions in this case. One was "Abek, Wabek, Fabek; in Christ's garden stand three red roses - one for God, the other for God's blood, the third for the angel Gabriel; blood, I pray you, cease to flow". Another version ran "On the head of our Lord God there bloom three roses; the first is his virtue, the second is his youth, the third is his will. Blood, stand thou in the wound still, so that thou neither sore nor abscess giveth" (Dyer). One very strange charm was used in order to find the sex of an unborn child. All one had to do was take a lily and a rose to a pregnant woman. If she chose the lily, it would be a boy; if the rose, a girl (Cockayne).

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