Under the summer roses
When the flagrant crimson
Lurks in the dusk
Of the wild red leaves,
Love, with little hands,
Comes and touches you
With a thousand memories,
And asks you
Beautiful, unanswerable questions.
Carl Sandburg, Under the Harvest Moon
Let our banquet have roses…
Horace, Odes 1.36.15
What would the feast of life be like without the “flagrant crimson” or the chaste simplicity, the playful exuberance, or the serene composure of the rose? For at least six millennia, its five-petaled wild ancestors and their thousands of cultivated descendants have delighted the eye, soothed the soul and borne testimony to a myriad of human rites and passages. Appealing to the haughty as well as the humble, roses evoke the evanescence of innocence and youth, enwreathe the victor, memorialize the martyr, are woven into flags of nationhood and the banners of royal bloodlines. Above all, roses signify love, in all its earthly and heavenly hues: what or who we love in the present; the one we loved and have lost, and the longing for something nameless– embodied in the form and color of roses, and in the perfume that “suddenly…lies on the air like fame” (Rilke, 149) — that both beckons and mysteriously eludes us.
Roses are equally at home being tended by angels in the Garden of Paradise or decorating a florid Victorian valentine. Rosewater or rose oil has enhanced complexions, been used against plague, washed and purified the Mosque of Omar, and been incorporated in the preparation and burial of the dead. The scent of roses has remained the most popular, for the longest time, of any flowers fragrance, evoking both the seductive love magic of Cleopatra, and the “odour of sanctity” of the Virgin Mary. Though roses are associated with several male deities, they are preeminently the flower of the Great Goddess, resonant of her sensuality, fertility and regal compassion. Sacred to Venus (Aphrodite), they float on the wind in Botticelli’s famous painting of her birth from Ocean; the devotees of the Phrygian Cybele “shadow the Mother and her retinue with a snow of roses” (Lucretius Carus, 2.627). And in Apuleius’s second-century novel The Golden Ass, though roses are the antidote for the magic-gone-amuck that has transformed the hero Lucius into a donkey, they are always just out of reach until strategically placed in a festive procession for the Egyptian goddess Isis, who subsequently calls Lucius to priestly service.
For alchemists, the entire process of psychic transformation takes place sub rosa (under the rose). Denoting silence, the phrase purportedly originated in the story of Eros’ gift of a rose to Harpocrates, the god of silence, in grateful recognition of his discretion regarding the illicit amours of Eros’ mother Aphrodite. In alchemy, however, the crossed branches of the white and red rose not only allude to the “love affair” and “marriage” of opposite natures, and to the albedo and rubedo as understanding and realization of psychic processes, but also to the silence necessary to the interior nature of the work and to the womb or “rose” within whose petalled folds the Self is secretly conceived.
But while the endearing qualities of roses are indisputable, so is their notorious thorniness. Literally, the prickles or thorns of roses are protective, dissuading predators from making a banquet of their delectable blooms; they may also serve as armored reservoirs to forestall dehydration in the stems, especially of those, like the desert rose, that live in hot climates. Although this suggests at a psychic level that a certain amount of thorniness is a positive attribute, thorns may also represent a prickly defensiveness that precludes intimacy. In the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty,” the spindle that pricks Briar Rose and drugs her into a hundred years’ sleep is replicated in the imprisoning hedge of briers that entangles and lethally wounds her would-be suitors. In the fairy tale “Snow-White and Rose-Red,” on the other hand, the phallic thorniness of their own aggression and the “prick” of reality is exactly what the two sisters need in order to outgrow the cloyingly “rosy” sweetness and goodness– devoid of any shadow– that suffeses their idyllic, exclusively feminine world with mother. As an emblem of Dionysus, the thorns of the rose as well as its alluring scent suggest the potential dangers of the subterranean aspect of psyche. In Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” for instance, the “soft incence…in the embalmed darkness” of the musk rose and white hawthorn intimates the poet’s melancholic love affair with death.
All information and images in this post are taken from:
The Book of Symbols Reflections on Archetypal Images
Published by Taschen, 2019