Sub rosa : secrets of the rose
My fools for senses,
You probably will have read our Review of Amaya, by Dhaher bin Dhaher, published last week on the website. There you will have read about Damascus, its courtyards and flowers which brings us here today : to Damascus. For we shall talk about its rose or rather about THE rose. Indeed, although the story of the rosa damascena might be now renown, we realised that very few people actually know the story of the rose itself ; a flower which has now become so banal ; a flower which we sell for a pound in streets of Paris ; a flower so beloved, so behated that we stripped it of all scent and dignity ; a flower so renown – the great unknown.
Either symbol of love or forgiveness, of passion or chastity, of regret and tears and ingenuity, the rose has infused virtually all cultures with its scented poison. Be it India or Europe, Japan or the venerable Rome, there isn’t a civilisation, there isn’t a time which hasn’t been influenced by the most celebrated flower of mankind. Although we originally planned to write an Overview on ambergris –in pair with a Review of Anbar, also by Dhaher bin Dhaher- our sudden change of subject to Amaya forced us to look for something else. Sleepless nights of research and reading and writing ended in unearthing the hidden roots of the rose.
Together, my dearest friends, let us discover the hidden, the mythical, the mystical roots of the rose.
Although it is now accepted that the rose originated from the actual Iran, we mainly focused on ancient Greece, for the Hellenes saw the flower as a gift from the skies. Who has forgotten the « rosy finger’d Aurora » so dear to Shakespeare and Hesiod ? Ever since the days of King Midas, the Greeks had harvested roses to such extent that we can name dozens of different varieties, well known to the authors of the day, amongst which the roses of Trachis and Emathia ; of Miletus and Lydia. Despite not giving birth to it, Greece promptly became rose’s surrogate mother. For indeed, never has the rose been more sung than in the Greek mythology – and therein lies its origin, divine.
There exists many versions. The most famous tells of the goddess Chronis who, whilst walking in the forest, stumbled upon the livid corpse of a woodland nymph. Inconsolable, she called upon the aid of her fellow gods to ease her pain. To Apollo, she asked that he breathe a new life into her. To Dionysius, she asked that he give her a perfumed nectar. She crafted her a crown of silky petals whilst Aphrodite gave the reborn nymph the gift of beauty and named her after her son, Eros –hence the word rose. Chronis, possessed with sheer joy, then called upon Iris and Aurora to herald the great news to gods and Men. As Iris touched the flower and added the new colour to her rainbow, Aurora used to paint the morning and evening skies.
Another completely different legend speaks of Adonis, mortally wounded whilst hunting. Upon hearing the dreadful news, Aphrodite rushed by her lover’s side and as her tears mingled with his blood, a new flower was born.
These two versions, as different as they seem, are actually not that much. Both show us that the Greeks, way before the rest of humanity, established a clear link between rose and love. Between rose and death, also. In the two myths, the flower is a symbol of resurrection, of a love greater than death, of a love so strong that he ressuscitates, or rather takes flesh anew.
As we were reading these myths, we immediately thought of another one which would seem resolutely different to any reader. We’re referring to the myth of Cybele and Attis, for this story not only would take over rose’s symbolism, but would add a new layer to it. Regarding the love stronger than death, we see that when confronted with Attis’s death, Cybele will resurrect him into an evergreen pine tree. In his eponymous opera, Lully will even have Cybele say « By my breath divine is Atys reviv’d, despite death so cruel, Cybele’s love shall never die ». Cybele, oh so mysterious Cybele, absorbing the attributes of the myths ancient and paving the way for rose’s mystical journey.
The second meaning of rose, its mystical meaning, is indeed that of divine union. More so than resurrection, the rose, by the way of Cybele, announces Incarnation for she was the first icon of a descent, from Heaven to Earth – and Cybele’s own icon was actually a meteorite. With her, the gods leave the stellar spheres to enter the telluric one - that which was stellar has now become matter. Lucretius precisely bore that in mind when, in his De Rerum Natura, he wrote : « With flowers of roses falling like the snow, upon the Mother and her companion-bands ». Here, the rose adorns the head of the Queen-Mother, the Mother-Earth ; adorns the head of the first Magna Mater. It adorns the head of a goddess whom was not only a symbol but a true icon of the union between gods and Humanity and chose the rose to show for it. The same rose which Iris will add to the colours of her rainbow ; the same rainbow which would later become a sign of the covenant between God and mankind.
Most of all, Cybele offers rose its new mystical vocation. Mother of Gods, she heralds the Mother of God. Her incarnation heralds the Incarnation. Resurrecting Attis, she heralds the Resurrection. The Magna Mater heralds the Dei Mater.
Mystical vocation for the Virgin Mary would later be known as the Rosa Mystica – which meant hidden. From heathen myths to sacred mysteries. Mystica, or hidden, because as cardinal Newman would explain it, when she assumpted to Heaven, the Virgin Mary left no body to worship – only an empty tomb for the Apostles to behold. This absence, this secret, this silence – could it be the mystical, hidden, meaning of the rose ? No. For as Newman puts it : « Why then is she thus the hidden rose ? Plainly because that sacred body is in heaven, not on earth. » What this episode tells us is that the deep meaning of such beautiful flower isn’t the silence of the sepulchre, nor the secret of the mysteries, nor even the absence of a corpse – but the union between Heaven and Earth, between God and Men.
One only needs to look at the many paintings of the Virgin Mary, where she is depicted with all the regalias but one. In place of a sceptre, she usually holds a rose, not as to symbolise her purity –lily was used in that purpose- but to really show her royalty, one which she held because of her perfect union with God ; because she was the icon of the ultimate synergy between will and grace. The only source, truth and end of this union being love.
Yes, my dear friends, roses are not a meek symbol of passion one buys around Valentine’s day. Roses are here to remind us that there is more to life than death, sadness and grief. That there is more to life than regrets and guilt. Roses, with Aphrodite and Attis, with Cybele and the Virgin Mary show us that there is even more than life.
There is love.