Beauteous flowers why do we spread
Upon the monuments of the dead?
Nothing they but dust can show,
Or bones that hasten to be so.
Crown me with roses whilst I live —
Now your wines and ointments give;
After death I nothing crave,
Let me alive my pleasures have!
All are Stoics in the grave.
— Anacreaon (554 – 469 B.C.E.)
Roses have a complex history as symbols of power and magic. They were used extensively in rituals throughout the ancient world. In The Illiad, the body of Hector is anointed with rose oil by Aphrodite Herself. Evidence from Egyptian tombs affirms that roses were used in funeral wreaths. In fact, actual wreaths survive, excavated by Sir Flinders Petrie, dating from 170 CE.
Roses are mentioned extensively in the Epic of Gilgamesh. In fact, it is no accident that the rose-filled Hanging Gardens of Nebuchadnezzar were located near the Gate of Ishtar, the Goddess also called the Lady of the Garden of Heaven. This great Sumerian – Akkadian Goddess is variously named, including Ishtar, Inanna, the Semitic Ashtoreth of the Bible, the Syrian Astarte and later, Aphrodite of the Greeks. Her symbol was the rose-star disc, connected to the blood She shed in Her search for Her youthful spouse, Dumuzi.
The theme of the rose springing from spilled blood is echoed in many myths. In some, it is the blood of battle wounds and struggle, but in others, it is tied to the shedding of menstrual blood, and thus becomes the very symbol of the transition from the chaste, innocent Maiden to the fertile, sexual Mother.
Since the time of the ancient Greeks, the juxtaposition of red and white roses has symbolized this very transition, and more generally, the dual nature of love: purity and innocence represented by white roses; desire and sexual gratification by red ones. This symboism is used quite extensively in the Tarot, for example.
Eros, son of Aphrodite and God of sexual desire, is frequently depicted wearing a wreath of roses. And both Dionysus and Bacchus were crowned with roses. Although the names of the Gods and Goddesses differ, in both Greek and Roman mythology, there is a basic similarity in many of the themes that involve roses, revolving around the connection between blood, sexual fulfillment, and, later, wine and revelry.
Rose wreaths were awarded by the Romans for a major military success, and in later times, even for minor victories. Rose petals were scattered in the path of the victors at the Gladtator Games. The Emperor Nero (37 – 68 C.E.) started the fashion for raining rose petals on guests at feasts. Two centuries later, the teenage Emperor Heliogabalus (202 – 224 C.E.) showered his guests with so many roses that a number of guests were suffocated.
After thousands of years of association with the Divine, especially those themes so near and dear to the human heart like sex, eternal life, and triumphant power, it’s no wonder the rose has a central place in occult practices. Stroll with me tomorrow, through the rose garden of sorcery and magic.