The rose is the flower of Venus and the symbol of love in all its delicious variety. It is symbolically linked to Adonis, Aphrodite, Dionysus and Eros. Greek lovers gave roses as a courting gift to their eromenoi. “So must you beautiful boys arm yourselves with roses,” wrote Philostratus in the second century CE.
According to mythology, Aphrodite trod on the thorns of a white rose-bush when she rushed to succour her mortally-wounded lover Adonis. Her blood stained the petals red, and this is how the red rose came to be. The red rose is sacred to Venus and Aphrodite, who rule over love, life, creation, fertility, creation, beauty and virginity. The open rose is a symbol of the feminine, while the rosebud is a symbol of the masculine, and suggests same-sex love, especially in the Middle East. In a sixteenth century text by Mehemmed Ghazali (d. 1535), the relaxed anus is compared to the “laughter of a thousand roses”, and the closed anus to a “silent rosebud”. In nineteenth-century French bohemian circles, men-loving men were dubbed “les Chevaliers de la Rosette” (the knights of the little rose – the little rose signified the anus). The rose also symbolises the short intense life of a beautiful being who does not bear fruit – the eternal ephebe.
In alchemy, the rose symbolised the Divine Androgyne, and both Rosicrucian and Sufi writings make extensive use of rose imagery. In the Rubai’yat of Omar Khayyam (a Sufi poem), the rose represents the ephemeral nature of life:
Look to the Rose that blows about us—“Lo,
“Laughing,” she says, “into the World I blow:
“At once the silken Tassel of my Purse
“Tear, and its Treasure on the Garden throw.”
Similarly, in an Irish ballad, the rose symbolises regret at the passing of youth:
‘Tis the last rose of summer left blooming alone
All her lovely companions are faded and gone.
In Rosicrucianism, the rose-cross contains the mystic rose as the wheel and the divine light of the universe, and the cross as the temporal world of pain and sacrifice. W B Yeats evokes these themes in his poem, To the Secret Rose:
Surely thine hour has come, thy great wind blows,
Far off, most secret, and inviolate Rose?
Yeats also used the rose to represent the Christos in his poem To the Rose upon the Rood of Time:
Come near, come near, come near—Ah, leave me still
A little space for the rose-breath to fill!
Lest I no more hear common things that crave;
The weak worm hiding down in its small cave,
The field-mouse running by me in the grass,
And heavy mortal hopes that toil and pass;
But seek alone to hear the strange things said
By God to the bright hearts of those long dead,
And learn to chaunt a tongue men do not know.
Come near; I would, before my time to go,
Sing of old Eire and the ancient ways:
Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days.
The Compass Rose, also known as the Rose of the Winds represents the cardinal directions and the winds, and is used as a symbol of various things in the Cochrane Tradition.
The rose is also a symbol of secrecy – the term ‘sub rosa’ denotes this, and a carving of a rose is hung in council chambers as a reminder to be discreet. In Alchemy, it was also a symbol of wisdom, and the rebirth of the spiritual after the death of the temporal. In Egypt, the rose symbolised pure love freed from carnal desire, and as such, was an emblem of Isis and Osiris (Aset and Ousir). In Hebrew symbolism, the centre of the rose is the sun, and its petals are the infinite variety of life. The Adept‘s Rose has 22 petals (one for each Hebrew letter and path of the Tree of Life); the inner ring of three petals denotes Air, Fire and Water; the middle ring represents the seven planets; and the outer ring represents the twelve signs of the zodiac.
According to Persian legend, essential oil of rose was discovered at the wedding-feast of the Princess Nour-Djihan and the Emperor Djihanguyr. A canal was dug, and the surface of the water was covered with rose-petals. The heat of the sun caused the oil to separate from the petals and float on the surface of the water, and the production of rose-oil began soon afterwards.
Essential oil of rose (extracted from Rosa damascena and Rosa centifolia) can be used to purge the vascular and digestive systems and soothe the nerves. It regulates menstruation and is good for genito-urinary infections and as an antiseptic. It is also an aphrodisiac. Rose water reduces inflammation and can be used as an eye bath for conjunctivitis, or in a poultice applied to the temples to relieve a headache. Rosehip syrup is an excellent source of vitamin C. Red rose petals can be used for dyeing cloth, and any colour can be used to make rose-petal wine. Rosaries were originally made of dried rosebuds, and the beads are still carved in the shape of rosebuds.
In magic, the thorns of the rose are used for protection. Rose petals and hips are used in healing magic, and to relieve stress. Drinking rosebud tea before going to bed is said to induce prophetic dreams. Planting roses in the garden is said to attract faeries, and rose-bushes are said to grow best when they are stolen from another garden.
Yvonne Aburrow, 2008.
Aburrow, Yvonne (1993), The Enchanted Forest: the magical lore of trees. Chieveley: Capall Bann Publishing.
Conner, Randy P., David Sparks, and Mariya Sparks (1997), Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol and Spirit: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Lore. London and New York: Cassell.
Fitzgerald, Edward (trans.) The Rubai’yat of Omar Khayyam. http://www.armory.com/~thrace/ev/siir/Omar_Khayyam.html
Yeats, William Butler, The Secret Rose.