The Mystical Rose

The rose is known as the Queen of the Flowers, and it is inextricably linked to the feminine, the Goddess, romance, sexuality and love.  “The rose each ravished sense beguiles“, wrote Sappho, the female poet of ancient Lesbos. [1] It is easy to understand why these voluptuous and sensuously perfumed flowers are sacred to so many goddesses of love – Isis, Aphrodite, Venus, Inanna and Ishtar to name just a few. In one Greek tale, roses were created when Aphrodite first arose from the ocean and stepped onto the shore and the sparkling sea foam fell from her body in the form of pale white roses and took root. Later, as she pursued the beautiful youth Adonis, she caught herself on a thorn and her blood dyed the roses crimson red, symbolising innocence turned to desire, and maidenhood turned to womanhood.  [2] Eros, the son of Aphrodite and god of sexual desire, is also frequently depicted wearing a wreath of roses, further associating the flower with lust. Roman brides and bridegrooms were crowned with roses, and in Greece, rose petals were scattered before the altars of Hymen, god of marriage. We still give bouquets of red roses to convey romantic love, and in Britain rose petals used to be scattered at weddings to ensure a happy marriage.

At Roman gatherings when a rose was hung on the ceiling it meant that nothing said at the meeting should be repeated outside, it was sub rosa, or ‘under the rose’. Even now the plaster ornament on the centre of the ceiling is known as a ceiling rose and signified the same.  The rose was a symbol of secrecy in the mystery religions of the classical world. In Graeco-Egyptian myth Harpocrates (the Greek name for the Egyptian god Horus) was bribed by Eros with a rose not to betray the secrets of Aphrodite.  Horus/Harpocrates is his father Osiris reborn and stands an emblem of the initiate reborn through the mysteries. Many later mystery sects have taken the rose as their symbol.  The Rosicrucians have the rose joined to the cross, for example.  The twelfth century Sufi Abdul Qādir Gīlānī established a path of practical mysticism called Sebil-el-Ward (The Path of the Rose).

There are several treatises on alchemy called The Rosary of the Philosophers. In alchemy, the rose is primarily a symbol of the mystical marriage of opposites, and their rebirth into a new level of existence. [3] The white rose is the feminine, the moon, purity, perfection, innocence and virginity, while the red is male, the sun, earthly passion and fertility. Red and white roses together signify the union of opposites, and since the blending of two opposites into one means the death of individual ego, any red and white flowers together symbolise death. In the Practice of Psychotherapy, psychologist and writer on archetypes Carl Jung discussed the archetypal underpinnings of love between people in terms of the rose: “The wholeness which is a combination of ‘I and you’ is part of a transcendent unity whose nature can only be grasped in symbols like the rose or the conjunctio (Conjunction).” [4] Conjunction is the turning point in alchemy, the mystical marriage of the masculine Sun (red rose) and feminine Moon (white rose), or the union of Spirit with Soul. [5] Mystical poets have used the rose to symbolise the yearnings of the soul to be united with the divine. 

In the Christian era, the rose was taken from the Goddess and given to the Virgin Mary, the Christian model of union with God, the rose and the rosary became symbols of the union between god and mankind. Scenes of Mary in a rose garden or under a rose arbour or before a tapestry of roses reinforces this idea. The rose garden in alchemical drawings is a symbol of sacred space, paradise itself, or  the mystical bridal chamber, the place of the mystic marriage. [6] The word rosary originally referred to an enclosed rose garden, and hints at the much older feminine mysteries of the Goddess that Harpocrates was bribed to keep secret, and the walled garden standing for the secret place that every woman possesses. Rosary beads originally consisted of strings of beads made from pressed petals.

The rose is often a sun symbol; anything round and rayed suggests the sun.  The southern Ukrainians used the rosette as a solar emblem, and the designs suggest the ever-renewing strength of the sun, life, death and rebirth.  This makes the rose a symbol of immortality through death. There are many rosette symbols on Celtic tombstones in Alsace.  In ancient Egypt roses were used in funeral wreaths.  The Romans used roses at funerals, garlanded tombs with them, and planted graves with roses.  [7] [8] [9] Rose buds were offered to the dead at the festival of the Rosalia, and this may be the origin of the custom of having rose gardens in graveyards.  The underworld goddess Hecate is sometimes portrayed wearing a crown of roses.

The rose can represent the opposites of life and death. In spring it is a symbol of resurrection, love and fecundity, while the faded flower represents the transience of life and beauty, sorrow and mortality.  While the flower of the rose is beautiful, soft and yielding, signifying love, beauty and passion, the rose has thorns which mean pain, blood and sacrifice. It is the blood and sacrifice of Osiris, Adonis and Christ. In Christian lore Christ’s death re-dyed the white roses red.

Naturally, roses were deemed to have a great deal of magical power, for love, healing and protection. An Egyptian papyrus described an ointment of roses used to draw a woman to a man. [10] This idea was still to be found in the English love spell that advises: Take three roses (white, pink and red) and wear them next to your heart for three days. Give them to your lover and he will be yours forever. In the West Country a girl would pick a rose on midsummer morning and put it away wrapped in a piece of white paper. If it did not fade, she could wear it to church on Christmas morning and her lover would reveal himself by taking it from her.

Roses could also repel evil. A text in the National Library of Turin, against the power of evil, has a series of protective spells to be used by a person who wishes to adjure the powers of the divine realm against malevolent forces. “Draw four angels … while you are wearing a wreath of roses ….” directs one such. Another text recommends a person inflicted by a demon to have a prayer uttered over a flask of rose water, which is then to be poured over the unfortunate victim. [11] Roses were grown in monastery gardens, and it was held that a person possessed by demons could not abide the scent of a rose.

 Roses were employed in old country cures. In Britain children were passed through a wild rose arch three times on three successive mornings to cure whooping cough, and sometimes a piece of bread and butter was left beneath the arch, so that any animal taking it would absorb the disease. The briar was sometimes made into a cross for the patient to wear.

The rose has long been valued for its healing abilities.  Pliny described thirty-two medical cures that could be prepared from roses. Culpepper said of rose remedies “to write at large of every one of these would swell my book too big“.  Gerard commented that “The distilled water of roses is good for strengthening the heart and refreshing of the spirits and likewise for all things that require a gentle cooling…….it mitigateth the pain of the eyes proceeding a hot cause, bringeth sleep, which also the fresh roses themselves provoke through their sweet and pleasant smell.

The Greeks, Romans and Egyptians all knew how to extract the rose’s perfume by steeping the petals in oil, vinegar or alcohol.  From the Middle Ages roses featured in many household recipes for perfumes, cosmetics and medicine, pomanders, toilet waters, pastilles and potpourri. [12]

As a symbol of luxury and extravagance, Roman emperors would shower their guests with rose petals, a tradition started by the emperor Nero (37 – 68 CE). However, the teenage Emperor Heliogabalus (202 – 224 CE) got carried away and showered his guests with so many roses that several of them were suffocated. 

© Anna Franklin from the forthcoming Hearth Witch’s Garden Herbal, Llewellyn, 2023


[1] The Works of Anacreon Trans: English Verse , BiblioLife,  2010

[2] Jennifer Peace Rhind, Fragrance & Wellbeing: Plant Aromatics and Their Influence on the Psyche, Singing Dragon, London, 2013

[3] http://alchemyguild.memberlodge.org/page-311919, accessed 19.11.21

[4] The Practice of Psychotherapy: Second Edition (Collected Works of C. G. Jung) Routledge, 1993

[5] https://fd11-11ministries.org/2019/08/12/roses-the-spiritual-alchemical-practical/ accessed 19.11.21

[6] http://alchemyguild.memberlodge.org/page-311919, accessed 19.11.21

[7] Miranda Green, Gods of the Celts, Sutton Publishing Ltd, Stroud, 1986

[8] Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix, The Ultimate Guide to Roses, Macmillan, London, 2004

[9] Laurie Brink and Deborah Green, Commemorating the Dead: Texts and Artifacts in Context. Studies of Roman, Jewish and Christian Burials, de Gruyter, Berlin, 2008

[10] F L Griffith & H Thompson (Ed.), The Leiden Papyrus, Dover, 1974

[11] M Meyer & R Smith (Ed.), Ancient Christian Magic, Harper, 1994

[12] Lesley Gordon, A Country Herbal, Webb & Bower Ltd, London, 1980

Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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