The symbology of flowers

Wiccan Rede * Spring 1986 by Morgana Sythove

Elsewhere in this issue of Wiccan Rede, Merlin has written an article about incense. When incense is being made great consideration is paid to the various ingredients, not only because they blend together to make the required scent, but also because of their corresponding quality and occult significance.

Much information regarding attributes and correspondences can be found in astrology. Symbolism and mythology can also be a source of information and of courses the various textbooks about magic which often have long lists of correspondences. Although this information will not be enough to lead us to the actual mixture necessary to create a particular result, it does help us to gain an insight into the underlying properties of the ingredients. One of the major ingredients in incense is flowers, used in their dried state, or more often, as an essential oil.

In anthroposophic circles the flower part of the plant is associated with the element of fire – the roots representing earth, the stems water and the leaves air. It is interesting to note in this connection that the word flower (fleur), which means ‘living lord of fire’ (Bayley) is derived from the Latin florem.

Most of the flowers used for making incense have symbolic associations. The rose perhaps having the most occult significance. The rose is usually depicted as a five petalled symbol or as a roset (multi-petalled). In the winter issue of WR the significance of the number 5 was dealt with in the article on the Pentagram and the Ankh. .”

Roses are also usually pictured as white or read. For the English the most famous red and white roses are of course the red Tudor rose of Lancashire and the white rose of Yorkshire, which are historically remembered in the civil wars or in ‘the War of the Roses’ (15th century). The rose is also the national emblem of England since it is the flower of St. George, the patron saint of England.

According to Harold Bayley the word rose is an inflected form of Eros, the God of Love. The white rose signifies purity, perfection and virginity, whilst the red rose represents the more earthly passion. .”

J.C. Cooper, in her book ‘Symbolism’ writes the following about the rose. “The rose can represent both time and eternity, life and death. It has always been the flower of mystery: the ‘heart of a rose’ is synonymous with the unknown; the whole rose is the pleroma. As depicting life, it is a symbol of Spring, resurrection, love and fecundity; as death, it typifies transitoriness, mortality and sorrow. Both these aspects were present in its use in the ancient funeral gardens of the Romans. The element of mystery in the rose has invested it with a symbolism of secrecy. Thus, a rose was incorporated as a decoration on the ceilings of council chambers to remind those sitting under it of the need for secrecy and discretion (hence the expression sub rosa). The association of the rose with passion also connects it with wine, seduction and sensuality, but also with happiness, when it is ‘roses, roses, all the way …’. But the thorns of the rose mean pain, blood and martyrdom.”

In Greek art the rosette is frequently used to decorate friezes and ceilings of temples and also mundane articles such as plates and drinking vessels.
Although the rose as a flower can be seen as a symbol of perfection and love, it also has sharp thorns protecting the bloom. In the fairytale of Sleeping Beauty it is the prince who battles his way through the briars who will eventually find the ‘Briar-Rose’. After kissing her she awakes from her long sleep. .”

Here it is the prince (spirit) who frees the princess (soul). In the fairytale ‘Snow-white and Red-rose’ it is the soul (the two girls) who free the prince who has been turned into a bear. The fairytale begins: “A poor woman once lived in a lonely little cottage with a garden in front of it; in the garden were two rose-bushes, one with white and one with red flowers. She had two children that were like the two rose-bushes; one was called Snow-white and the other Rose-red.
Now they were as good and well-behaved, they worked as hard and as cheerfully as any two children that ever were seen; but Snow-white was quieter and more gentle than Rose-red, who would rather be running about the woods and fields, picking flowers and catching butterflies. But Snow-white would sit at home with her mother and help her in the house or read to her if she had nothing else to do.”
The two girls are very different in nature, the one being active (red) whilst Snow-white is much quieter.
And yet together they form a union.

Sometimes the rose is found in combination with the iris or fleur-de-lys. In some symbols it is surmounted by a rose/star figure, on other occasions it forms the centre of the mystic fourfold rose.
The Iris was the rainbow messenger of the Gods and especially of Zeus and Hera. She could be recognised by golden wings attached to her shoulders and she carried a caduceus in her hand. The Greeks and Romans saw the rainbow as a sign of coming rain and according to mythology Iris was married to Zephyr, the rain bringing west wind.
The iris, thought to be the original fleur-de-lys is also the flower symbol of France. It is often associated with Joan of Arc and on her statue at Rouen there is a large fleur-de-lys with the inscription:

“The maiden’s sword protects the royal crown,
Beneath the maiden’s sword the lilies safely bloom.”

The iris means ‘sword lily’ and quite often the fleur-de-lys is associated with the lily. The lily is a well known Christian symbol and often represents the Virgin Mary, “the pure white petals signifying her spotless body”. The lily was also sacred to Venus and was used to decorate the marital couch of Zeus and Hera. .”

The Eastern counterpart to the lily is the lotus, although the symbolism of the lotus is much more profound. “It has both masculine and feminine attributes and is both yin and yang, since it grows out of the yin lunar, watery element into the light of the sun, the yang. Like the lily it is purity, beauty and feminine perfection. The lotus also expresses spiritual unfolding; starting with its roots in the slime, it grows upwards through the dark waters and its flowers, floating on the waters, reach the light of the sun and the air of the heavens. Its roots represent indissolubility, the stem is the umbilical cord which keeps man attached to his origins and the flower takes on the form of the sun’s rays. The seedpod, which completes the cycle, is the fecundity of creation and returns the seed to the original waters. The same plant bears buds, flowers and seeds at the same time and is associated with past, present and future, which, in turn, mean totality. In China, it is especially the flower of the beautiful and serene Kwan-yin, Queen of Heaven and Goddess of Compassion. The lotus also appears with ancient Hindu and Egyptian sun gods and with Semitic moon gods and goddesses. As both masculine and feminine, it is a symbol of the light and fire of the sun and the feminine lunar powers of the waters of creation, the two interacting to produce perfection.” (J.C. Cooper)

In Egypt the lotus was associated with Osiris and Isis and sometimes Isis is seen emerging from a lotus flower. Egyptian mummies during ritual treatment bore a lotus as a symbol of new life.
It is interesting to note here too that the coloured part of the eye is called the iris and Osiris means ‘many-eyed’.

As we have seen flowers can be seen as having both masculine and feminine qualities, although many flowers are associated with goddesses. .”

Many books have been written about the significance of flowers, herbs, woods, trees and roots – some concentrating on medicinal qualities, others on legend and folklore, or on the magical properties which they represent. Many floral essences which are used in incense and magical oil have not even been mentioned, such as jasmine, honeysuckle, orange blossom (bergamot), lavender, anemone, broom, celandine, lily of the valley and many many others. Those who are interested could try to borrow or buy some books, such as: .”

  • Various herbals, of which the best known probably is ‘A Modern Herbal’ by Mrs. M. Grieve (Penguin).
  • More information about legend and lore has John Lust’s The Herb Book (Bantam), whilst still being oriented towards medicine.
  • R.A. Miller’s book ‘The Magical and Ritual Use of Herbs’ needs hardly any explanation: good information about stimulants, narcotics, depressants and hallucinogens (Destiny).
  • Paul Beyerl’s ‘Master Book of Herbalism’ (Phoenix) is the first book written for the Craft about Herbalism and includes deities, magical and ritual use of herbs and many useful appendices. If only one book can be chosen, this should be the one.
  • Scott Cunningham’s ‘Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs’ (Llewellyn) carries a wealth of magical information, but no medical information is present. Very good thought Leo Vinci’s ‘Incense’ booklet (Weiser) is small, but with a surprising amount of information for those interested in incense making, including many formulas.
  • ‘Aromatics in Ritual and Therapeutics’ by James Sturzaker (Metatron) is even better, but as far as I know no longer available.
  • Lastly, I can only mention all the books about magic which have tables of correspondences. Often no reasons are given for the attributions, but as a starting point they do have their value.

Happy hunting!

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