Mythology, Symbolism And Deeper Appreciation

The rose has a rich history in its more esoteric relationship with humans, holding a central place in the mythology of many traditions and celebrated throughout as a symbol of love in its many forms, and of beauty and perfection. Many sources record these stories. The rose was dedicated to the goddess Ishtar in Babylonia, for the ancient Egyptians it belonged to Isis, for the Greeks, Aphrodite, and the Romans, Venus. In Islam the rose is said to come from the sweat and tears of the prophet Mohammed and obtained its red color from his blood. The Greek myths hold many versions of the rose’s story, among them that as Aphrodite, the goddess of love, emerged from the sea, roses grew from the foam. A yet more romantic story tells how Aphrodite ran, in vain, to save her lover, Adonis, from a wild boar sent by jealous Ares to kill him. She became entangled in thorn bushes in her haste and roses grew from her spilt blood. In a Christian context roses are strongly associated with the Virgin Mary, the Mystic Rose, depicted in many paintings, particularly by artists in the Middle Ages, for example Schongauer’s Madonna in the rose bower, held in a Colmar church. She is drawn among roses after the birth of Christ as a symbol of perfected love. The rose is associated with Christ too, representing attainment of perfect love through suffering. The Rosicrucians have as their emblem red roses on a black cross in recognition of this. Prayer beads are called rosaries. Dante gave paradise the shape of a rose, but it is intriguing why one plant should inspire such consistent imaginative interpretation as an almost universal response, and whether there is a link with rose’s reputation as a gentle balanced medicine, used specifically as a cordial.

Pelikan and Grohman (1989) take their studies of the rose into some appreciation of this response. The two authors witness the remarkable nature of the Rosaceae as a family and the rose as central ornament within it. They speak of the beauty and perfection of the rose, and of the Rosaceae family as a whole having an innate balance and clarity of form. The Rosaceae appeal to our sense of beauty, says Pelikan. He speaks of the balance between form and substance, whether in a tormentil, silverweed, dog rose, mountain ash, cherry or apple tree. ‘In every case, the impression is one of brimming fullness, copious riches without ever going beyond the bounds of form and measure, and it is this which gives the impression of utter wholesomeness’. Their essential nature, he says, is ‘bounteous grace’. Grohman (1989) illustrates this harmony and bounty and finds it in every aspect of the plant. He speaks of the Rosaceae as holding a central position among the dicotyledons, as the lilies do among the monocotyledons. In Kranich’s (1976) spectrum of dicotyledons (see introduction), he begins with waterlilies and develops his study through the bindweed, cabbage and buttercup families to the Rosaceae. Following these are the carrot, pea, deadnettle and daisy families. Considering the properties of the families the Rosaceae have neither the ‘undefined and changeable nature’ of the ‘watery” ranunculaceae with their endless capacity to metamorphose, nor the airy nature of the umbellifers, nor the fire of the labiates described in Pelikan. The Rosaceae hold the centre, the balance within the spectrum. Grohman (1989) explains, ‘In the Rosaceae the calyx is always a real calyx, the corolla a real corolla, etc.’. The Rosaceae have stability, firmness and clarity of form, he says. There are no irregular or bilaterally symmetrical flowers in the family, they are always sun-like. They have a strong root principle, which allows them to take hold of the earth and make woody plants and trees. There are hardly any annuals. They have a close connection with the ‘mineralising, hardening forces of the earth’, that gives them ‘an enduring quality’, he says. Grohman (1989) and Pelikan comment on the rose family’s capacity for great variety, Grohman in the form of its fruits, since cherry, plum, strawberry, raspberry, sloe, almond, apricot, peach, apple, pear, medlar, quince, damson, hawthorn, mountain ash all belong to this family; Pelikan in its 2000 and more species and its ‘sheer limitless number of variants’ in species like bramble, rose and apple. Moreover the rich flowering process, says Pelikan, links the Rosaceae to the sphere above the plant and balances the strong root process linking to the earth. He says ‘a mighty astral sphere desires to combine in the flowering process with the etheric principles of vegetative plant nature. However, moderation is once again masterly; the etheric is not overpowered by the astral for that would lead to the development of poisons, especially alkaloids. The etheric element is always strong enough to withstand the onslaught of the astral’.

Then Grohman (1989) considers the nature of the rose itself, whose value lies in its beauty, how it stands right at the centre of the Rosaceae, betraying perfection and balance in all its parts. ‘Wherever we look at it, we meet with harmony’, he says, ‘form and substance in equilibrium’. The scent is noble and well balanced, containing strength and gentleness, ‘nothing of a desire nature… nothing sickly or repulsive… a flowery fragrance… with a satisfying heavier perfume’. The dog rose, in its shape, might stand centrally within the rosaceae, holding a position between shrub and tree with its graceful, arching stems, putting the rose right at the centre, the heart, of the flower world. Grohman (1989) discusses too the principle of the pentagram within the rose. Although this principle pervades the dicotyledons as a whole (compare the sixfold monocolyledons) it sits more strongly in the rose than in other flowers. The arrangement of the leaves as they spiral up the stem begins the theme. ‘They exactly correspond’, he says, ‘to the five angles of a regular pentagram’, and ‘the angle between successive leaves equals two fifths of the circumference of the stem’. The flower has the same five-fold nature. And the consistency shown in the rose in both leaf and flower following the same numerical principle is noteworthy, Grohman points out, since most plants do not. The calyx in the rose is remarkable too and also carries the pentagram principle in the unfolding two-fifths sequence of the metamorphosis of the sepals, of which some are bearded and some not. The unusual nature of such a metamorphosis was even deemed by Albertus Magnus to merit a verse:

Quinque sunt fratres
Duo sunt barbati
Duo sine barba nati
Unus e quinque
Non habet barbam utrimque

Grohman translates:

Five are brothers
Two are bearded
Two are born without beards
One of the five
Is not bearded on both sides

Finally Grohman (1989) considers howthe rosehip falls centrally in form between the cherry and the apple, and is the direct opposite of the strawberry. (It is a wonderful Goethean exercise to metamorphose the fruits of the rose family from cherry to apple in imagination). In the cherry the ovary itself becomes the fruit and rests on the receptacle, which plays no part in the fruit formation; the apple, at the other end of the scale, is formed from the receptacle swelling round the five-fold ovary embedded within it and growing together with it. In the rose hip, the jug-shaped receptacle swells to form the flesh of the hip but does not fuse with the contained stony pips, each of which corresponds to a whole cherry, so the rosehip is a fruit within a fruit and again maintains a middle position between two poles. The strawberry is the opposite of the rosehip in that it is the cushion of the receptacle that swells, pushing the ovaries to the outside surface.

There is a further link between the pentagram and the rose with the planet Venus, perhaps fanciful to some, but interesting nevertheless. Kranich (1976) records how the relationship of the planet Venus to the earth in space is based on Venus’ synodic cycle of 584 days, 1 2/5 years, which results in five upper and five lower conjunctions with the sun in 8 years from an earth perspective, forming a ‘Venus pentagram’. Murrell (2007), having mapped this pattern out through the alternating appearance of Venus as morning and evening star, says ‘The relationship in space of Venus to the earth can be drawn by rotating an octogram around a pentagram. By joining the points made by this double rotation we find a graceful curving of the planet towards and away from the earth. The path is recognisably heart shaped – it is a mathematical curve called a cardioid’.

Kranich (1976) writes of the facility of seeing plants as the interpretation of inner soul qualities in outer pictorial form, and it is perhaps possible to see the gesture of the rose as expression of the deepest soul quality. One might also contemplate the alchemists moving from the hexagon of wisdom to the pentagon of love, but this is well beyond the bounds of this text.

Pelikan discusses the pharmacological activity of the Rosaceae having sugar, tannic and cyanide processes, and links the actions of the dog rose to these. He includes rose petals for checking diarrhoea and internal haemorrhage through the tannins, the fruit acids for stimulation of sluggish metabolism and tea from the seeds for diuresis counteracting stone formation due to their silica content. It is interesting to contemplate, in the light of Grohman’s (1989) observations on the hip and the strawberry, Pelikan’s noting of the opposite directions of the silica process in the strawberry which will send the blood process outwards from within, while the rosehip eliminates through the kidney, reversing the direction.

So the question remains that if appreciation of the rose mirrored cultural shifts in history, does its gradually fading fortune from the glory of the Renaissance to the languor of the relatively recent past match a gradual loss of balance and a lack of heart, or soul or centre, in our modern approach to healing? Perhaps the rose, while at ease with humoral and ‘felt’ approaches to treatment, and those with at least some spiritual or soul dimension, was too ‘effeminate’ and hardly robust enough to hold a place in a purely materialist and ontological approach to disease, and was relegated to a role either of sweetener, or only worthy of use in cosmetics. Is it too fanciful now to read the spontaneous rally reflected in renewed enthusiasm for the rose as a medicine as a clear soul response and a heart of sorts returning to herbal treatment in these troubled times when a viable marriage of the rational and the spirit is very much needed.