Many flowers from around the world appear in mythology. And many cultures connect flowers with birth, with the return of spring after winter, with life after death, and with joyful youth, beauty, and merriment. Because they fade quickly, flowers are also linked with death, especially the death of the young. Together the two sets of associations suggest death followed by heavenly rebirth, which may be one reason for the tradition of placing or planting flowers on graves. People also offer flowers to their gods at shrines and decorate churches with them.
In many societies, certain colors of flowers have acquired symbolic meanings. White blossoms, for example, represent both purity and death, while red ones often symbolize passion, energy, and blood. Yellow flowers may suggest gold or the sun. In the Chinese Taoist tradition the highest stage of enlightenment was pictured as a golden flower growing from the top of the head.
The shapes of flowers also have
significance. Blossoms with petals projecting outward like rays of light
from the sun have been associated with the sun and with the idea of the
center—of the world, the universe, or consciousness.
|Anemone - Greek mythology linked the
red anemone, sometimes called the windflower, to the death of Adonis.
This handsome young man was loved by both Persephone, queen of the underworld,
and Aphrodite, goddess of love. Adonis enjoyed hunting, and one day
when he was out hunting alone, he wounded a fierce boar, which stabbed
him with its tusks. Aphrodite heard the cries of her lover and arrived
to see Adonis bleeding to death. Red anemones sprang from the earth
where the drops of Adonis's blood fell. In another version of the story,
the anemones were white before the death of Adonis, whose blood turned
them red. Christians later adopted the
symbolism of the anemone. For them its red represented the blood shed by
Jesus on the cross. Anemones sometimes appear in paintings of the
Carnation - Composed of tightly packed, fringed petals of white, yellow, pink, or red, carnations have many different meanings. To the Indians of Mexico, they are the "flowers of the dead," and their fragrant blooms are piled around corpses being prepared for burial. For the Koreans, three carnations placed on top of the head are a form of divination. The flower that withers first indicates which phase of the person's life will contain suffering and hardship. To the Flemish people of Europe, red carnations symbolized love, and a kind of carnation called a pink was traditionally associated with weddings.
Hyacinth- The Greek myth of Hyacinthus and Apollo tells of the origin of the hyacinth, a member of the lily family. Hyacinthus, a beautiful young man of Sparta, was loved by the sun god Apollo. One day the two were amusing themselves throwing a discus when the discus struck Hyacinthus and killed him. Some accounts say that Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, directed the discus out of jealousy because he also loved Hyacinthus. While Apollo was deep in grief, mourning the loss of his companion, a splendid new flower rose out of the bloodstained earth where the young man had died. Apollo named it the hyacinth and ordered that a three-day festival, the Hyacinthia, be held in Sparta every year to honor his friend.Lily -To the ancient Egyptians, the trumpet-shaped lily was a symbol of Upper Egypt, the southern part of the country. In the ancient Near East, the lily was associated with Ishtar, also known as Astarte, who was a goddess of creation and fertility as well as a virgin. The Greeks and Romans linked the lily with the queen of the gods, called Hera by the Greeks and Juno by the Romans. The lily was also one of the symbols of the Roman goddess Venus.
In later times, Christians adopted the lily as the symbol of Mary who became the mother of Jesus while still a virgin. Painters often portrayed the angel Gabriel handing Mary a lily, which became a Christian symbol of purity. Besides being linked to Mary, the lily was also associated with virgin saints and other figures of exceptional chastity.
Lotus -The lotus shares some associations with the lily. Lotus flowers, which bloom in water, can represent female sexual power and fertility as well as birth or rebirth. The ancient Egyptians portrayed the goddess Isis being born from a lotus flower, and they placed lotuses in the hands of their mummified dead to represent the new life into which the dead souls had entered.
The holiness of the flower is illustrated by the legend that when the Buddha walked on the earth he left lotuses in his trail instead of footprints. One myth about the origin of Buddha relates that he first appeared floating on a lotus. According to a Japanese legend, the mother of Nichiren (Lotus of the Sun) became pregnant by dreaming of sunshine on a lotus. Nichirin founded a branch of Buddhism in the 1200s. The phrase "Om mani padme hum," which both Hindus and Buddhists use in meditation, means "the jewel in the lotus" and can refer to the Buddha or to the mystical union of male and female energies.
Narcissus- The Greek myth about the narcissus flower involves the gods' punishment of human shortcomings. Like the stories of Adonis and Hyacinth, it involves the transfer of life or identity from a dying young man to a flower.
Narcissus was an exceptionally attractive young man who scorned the advances of those who fell in love with him, including the nymph Echo. His lack of sympathy for the pangs of those he rejected angered the gods, who caused him to fall in love with his own reflection as he bent over a pool of water. Caught up in self-adoration, Narcissus died—either by drowning as he tried to embrace his own image or by pining away at the edge of the pool. In the place where he had sat gazing yearningly into the water, there appeared a flower that the nymphs named the narcissus. It became a symbol of selfishness and cold-heartedness. Today psychologists use the term narcissist to describe someone who directs his or her affections towards themselves, rather than toward other people.
Poppy - A type of poppy native to the Mediterranean region yields a substance called opium, a drug that was used in the ancient world to ease pain and bring on sleep. The Greeks associated poppies with both Hypnos, god of sleep, and Morpheus, god of dreams. Morphine, a drug made from opium, gets its name from Morpheus.
Rose -The rose, a sweet-smelling flower that blooms on a thorny shrub, has had many meanings in mythology. It was associated with the worship of certain goddesses and was, for the ancient Romans, a symbol of beauty and the flower of Venus. The Romans also saw roses as a symbol of death and rebirth, and they often planted them on graves.
-Some flowers turn their
heads during the day, revolving slowly on their stalks to face the sun
as it travels across the sky. The Greek myth of Clytie and Apollo, which
exists in several versions, explains this movement as the legacy of a
lovesick girl. Clytie, who was either a water nymph or a princess of the
ancient city of Babylon, fell in love with Apollo, god of the sun. For a
time the god returned her love, but then he tired of her. The forlorn
Clytie sat, day after day, slowly turning her head to watch Apollo move
across the sky in his sun chariot. Eventually, the gods took pity on her
and turned her into a flower. In some versions of the myth, she became a
heliotrope or a marigold, but most accounts say that Clytie became a
Violet - The violet, which grows low to the ground and has small purple or white flowers, appeared in an ancient Near Eastern myth that probably inspired the Greek and Roman myth of Venus and Adonis. According to this story, the great mother goddess Cybele loved Attis, who was killed while hunting a wild boar. Where his blood fell on the ground, violets grew. The Greeks believed that violets were sacred to the god Aresand to Io, one of the many human loves of Zeus. Later, in Christian symbolism, the violet stood for the virtue of humility, or humble modesty, and several legends tell of violets springing up on the graves of virgins and saints. European folktales associate violets with death and mourning.
Forests play a prominent role in many folktales and legends. In these dark, mysterious places, heroes can lose their way, face unexpected challenges, and stumble on hidden secrets. Part of the age-old magic of forests lies in the ideas that people have had about trees. In myths and legends from around the world, trees appear as ladders between worlds, as sources of life and wisdom, and as the physical forms of supernatural beings.
In traditional societies of Latvia, Lithuania, and northern Germany, the world tree was thought to be a distant oak, birch, or apple tree with iron roots, copper branches, and silver leaves. The spirits of the dead lived in this tree.
The mythology of early India, preserved in texts called the Upanishads, includes a cosmic tree called Asvattha. It is the living universe, an aspect of Brahman, the world spirit. This cosmic tree reverses the usual order. Its roots are in the sky, and its branches grow downward to cover the earth.
Trees of Life and Knowledge
Providers of shade and bearers of fruit, trees have long been associated with life and fertility. Evergreen trees, which remain green all year, became symbols of undying life. Deciduous trees, which lose their leaves in the winter and produce new ones in the spring, symbolized renewal, rebirth after death, or immortality.
Many creation myths draw on trees as symbols of life. In some versions of the Persian creation story a huge tree grew from the rotting corpse of the first human. The trunk separated into a man and a woman, Mashya and Mashyane, and the fruit of the tree became the various races of humankind. Norse mythology says that the first man and woman were an ash and an elm tree given life by the gods. The same theme appears in myths of the Algonquian-speaking people of North America, which tell that the creator and culture hero Gluskap fashioned man from an ash tree.
A traditional Micronesian myth from the Gilbert Islands in the Pacific Ocean is similar to the biblical account of the fall from Eden. In the beginning of the world was a garden where two trees grew, guarded by an original being called Na Kaa. Men lived under one tree and gathered its fruit, while women lived apart from the men under the other tree. One day when Na Kaa was away on a trip, the men and women mingled together under one of the trees. Upon his return, Na Kaa told them that they had chosen the Tree of Death, not the Tree of Life, and from that time all people would be mortal.
Trees—or the fruit they bore—also came to be associated with wisdom, knowledge, or hidden secrets. This meaning may have come from the symbolic connection between trees and worlds above and below human experience.
In the mythology of the Yoruba people of West Africa, a palm tree planted by the god Obatala was the first piece of vegetation on earth. The tree is a symbol of wisdom in stories about the life of Buddha, who was said to have gained spiritual enlightenment while sitting under a bodhi tree, a type of fig.
The Talking Tree
After European missionaries introduced Christianity to the Native Americans, the Yaqui of the American Southwest created a myth about a talking tree that spread the news of the new faith. One day the people came upon a tree whose vibrations made a sound that no one could understand. A wise woman who lived deep in the forest sent her daughter to interpret the sounds. The talking tree told of the Christian God and the priests who would soon arrive to teach the people new beliefs and new ways. Not everyone welcomed the coming changes. Some people left to dwell under the ground, taking the old ways with them. Those who remained became the Yaqui.
Tree Gods and Spirits
Another belief about trees sees them as embodying deities, spirits, or simply humans changed into trees by a special fate. Some Celtic and other European peoples worshiped groves of trees as well as particular trees. In the religion of the Druids, oaks were sacred. The ancient Romans associated oak trees with their sky god, Jupiter.
In Greek and Roman mythology, Dryads (also called Hamadryads) were nymphs who lived in trees and perished when their trees died or were cut down. A similar myth from Japan tells of a man who cherished a willow tree. One day he met a girl under the tree and married her, although her past was a mystery. When the emperor ordered the willow tree cut down to build a temple, the man's wife told him that she was the spirit of the tree, and she died as the tree fell to the ground.
Some myths tell of supernatural beings or humans who were changed into trees.
In Greek mythology, the nymph Daphne turned into a laurel tree when fleeing through the forest to escape the advances of Apollo. Lotis, another nymph who fled from unwanted advances, became the lotus tree. Other transformations symbolized eternal love. In a Greek myth, the gods turned Baucis and Philemon, a devoted old couple, into an oak and a linden tree when they died. The trees grew close together. In Japan, two pine trees growing close together were said to be faithful lovers. Tales from many cultures speak of the dead being reincarnated, or reborn, as trees, and legends and songs often tell of two trees, their branches linked or intertwined, that grow from the graves of lovers.
A Japanese myth tells of a poor elderly couple whose only joys in life were their pet dog and the beautiful blossoms of the cherry tree. After the dog found buried gold for its owners, a jealous neighbor killed the beloved animal. The old man and woman buried the dog under a cherry tree and believed that the dog's spirit inhabited the tree. With wood from one of its branches, they made a mortar—a bowl for grinding grain—that magically produced plenty of flour, even in a time of famine. The same wicked neighbor burned the mortar, but the old man found that its ashes, when sprinkled on the dog's grave, caused the cherry tree to produce its lovely blossoms at any time of year.
|Fruit appears in myths from around the world. Often it is
a symbol of abundance, associated with goddesses of fruitfulness, plenty, and
the harvest. Sometimes, however, fruit represents earthly pleasures, gluttony, and temptation. Specific kinds of fruit have acquired their own symbolic
meanings in the myths and legends of different cultures.
Apple - Apples are brimming with symbolic meanings and mythic associations. In China they represent peace, and apple blossoms are a symbol of women's beauty. In other traditions, they can signify wisdom, joy, fertility, and youthfulness.
Apples play an important part in several Greek myths. Hera, queen of the gods, owned some precious apple trees that she had received as a wedding present from Gaia, the earth mother. Tended by the Hesperides, the Daughters of Evening, and guarded by a fierce dragon, these trees grew in a garden somewhere far in the west. Their apples were golden, tasted like honey, and had magical powers. They could heal, they renewed themselves as they were eaten, and if thrown, they always hit their target and then returned to the thrower's hand. For the eleventh of his 12 great labors, Hercules had to obtain some of these apples. After a long, difficult journey across North Africa, he enlisted the help of the giant Atlas, who entered the garden, strangled the dragon, and obtained the fruit. Hercules took the apples to Greece, but Athena* returned them to the Hesperides.
A golden apple stolen from Hera's garden caused the Trojan Warf, one of the key events in Greek mythology. Eris, the goddess of discord, was angry not to be included among the gods asked to attend a wedding feast. Arriving uninvited, she threw one of the apples, labeled "For the Fairest," onto a table at the feast. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite* each assumed that the apple was meant for her. They asked Paris, a prince of Troy, to settle the matter, and he awarded the apple to Aphrodite. In revenge, Hera and Athena supported the Greeks in the war that led to the fall of Troy. People still use the phrase "apple of discord" to refer to something that provokes an argument.
In Norse mythology, apples are a symbol of eternal youth. Legend says that the goddess Idun guarded the magical golden apples that kept the gods young. But after the trickster god Loki allowed Idun to be carried off to the realm of the giants, the gods began to grow old and gray. They forced Loki to recapture Idun from the giants. Celtic mythology also mentions apples as the fruit of the gods and of immortality.
Today the apple is often associated with an episode of temptation described in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, lived in a garden paradise called Eden. God forbade them to eat the fruit of one tree that grew in the garden—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When they gave in to temptation and tasted the fruit, God drove them out of the Garden of Eden for breaking his commandment. Many people picture the forbidden fruit as an apple because it has been portrayed that way for centuries in European artworks. However, the apple was unknown in the Near East when the Bible was written there. The biblical description of the tree in the Garden of Eden does not name a specific fruit, and in some traditions, the forbidden fruit has been imagined as a fig, a pear, or a pomegranate.
Breadfruit - The breadfruit—a round fruit that can be baked and eaten like bread—is an important staple food in Polynesia. Myths about the origin of the breadfruit are found on several Polynesian islands. One story told in Hawaii takes place during a famine. A man named Ulu, who died in the famine, was buried beside a spring. During the night, his family heard the rustle of flowers and leaves drifting to the ground. Next came a thumping sound of falling fruit. In the morning, the people found a breadfruit tree growing near the spring, and the fruit from the tree saved them from the famine.
Cherry - Cherries can symbolize fertility, merrymaking, and festivity. In Japan, where cherry blossoms are the national flower, cherries represent beauty, courtesy, and modesty. The ancient Chinese regarded the fruit as a symbol of immortality. One Chinese legend tells of the goddess Xi Wang Mu, in whose garden the cherries of immortality ripen every thousand years. Because cherry wood was thought to keep evil spirits away, the Chinese placed cherry branches over their doors on New Year's Day and carved cherrywood statues to stand guard in front of their homes.
People in tropical regions consume
the milk and meat of the coconut and use the oil and empty shells for various
purposes. According to a legend from Tahiti, the first coconut came from the
head of an eel named Tuna. When the moon goddess Hina fell in love with the eel,
her brother, Maui, killed it and told her to plant the head in the ground.
However, Hina left the head beside a stream and forgot about it. When she
remembered Maui's instructions and returned to search for the head, she found
that it had grown into a coconut tree.
The fig tree has a sacred meaning for Buddhists. According to Buddhist legend, the founder of the religion, the Buddha, achieved enlightenment one day in 528 B.C. , while sitting under a bodhi tree, a kind of fig tree. The bo or bodhi tree remains a symbol of enlightenment.
- In Greek and Roman mythology, pears
are sacred to three goddesses: Hera (Juno to the Romans), Aphrodite (Venus to
the Romans), and Pomona, an Italian goddess of gardens and harvests. The ancient Chinese believed that the pear was a symbol of
immortality. In Chinese the word li means
both "pear" and "separation," and for this reason, tradition
says that to avoid a separation, friends and lovers should not divide pears
The Horn of Plenty - The cornucopia, a curved horn with fruits and flowers spilling from it is a common symbol of abundance and the earth's bounty. The symbol's origin lies in Greek mythology. Legend says that Zeus, the king of the gods, was raised by a foster mother named Amalthaea. She fed the infant god goat's milk. One day one of the goat's horns broke off. Amalthaea filled the horn with fruits and flowers and gave it to Zeus, who graciously placed it in the sky, where it became a constellation.
Pomegranate - For thousands of years, the pomegranate, a juicy red fruit with many seeds, has been a source of food and herbal medicines in the Near East and the eastern Mediterranean. Its many seeds made it a symbol of fertility, for out of one fruit could come many more. To the Romans, the pomegranate signified marriage, and brides decked themselves in pomegranate-twig wreaths.
Pomegranate seeds appear in the Greek myth of the goddess Demeter, protector of grain, crops, and the earth's bounty, and her daughter Persephone. One day Persephone was picking flowers when Hades, the king of the underworld, seized her and carried her to his dark realm to be his bride. Grief-stricken, Demeter refused to let crops grow. All of humankind would have starved if Zeus had not ordered Hades to release Persephone. Hades let her go, but first he convinced her to eat some pomegranate seeds. Having once eaten the food of the underworld, Persephone could never be free of the place. She was fated to spend part of each year there. For those months, the world is plunged into barrenness, but when Persephone returns to her mother, the earth again produces flowers, fruit, and grain.
Strawberry - Strawberries have special meaning to the Seneca of the northeastern United States. Because strawberries are the first fruit of the year to ripen, they are associated with spring and rebirth. The Seneca also say that strawberries grow along the path to the heavens and that they can bring good health.
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