The Rose

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


THE ROSE


Lady of silence
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Torn and most whole
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single rose
Is now the
Garden Where all loves end . . .

T. S. Eliot

 In a labyrinth of crumbling stone walls, of forgotten hollows carved by time and dreams, is a secret garden. Its gate is hidden by a foliage of neglect and its approach has shifted around so that it skirts away from the brambled confusion and leads back along a track to the ordinary world. There are few who know of this place or remember its history and it is likely that the growing thickets will eventually conceal its mystery altogether. The hidden place is sometimes called a bower and it seems that a great rose tree once grew there, its garlanded branches spreading over a small carved bench. To this paradise of long ago a sweet and chaste maiden daily came and waited for the mystic marriage of the red and white rose. She sat upon the bench while the blush of Aurora enlivened her fair cheek and the crimson tendrils of sunset cast shadows upon the ivory blossoms about her head. Day followed nightfall throughout that primordial season but her lover did not appear. She waited while the petals fell upon her shoulders and the bloom slipped from off her brow onto the soil about her feet. She waited and, like the ivory rose, she died, their death bringing grief because in life they had been so pure and beautiful. But though the echo of their beauty lingered in the fragrance of the garden, no eyes or heart were there to record the sweetly unfolded hope of the maiden rose or to weep at the passing.

 The secrecy of the garden has been carried in the symbol of the rose, and the term sub rosa comes from an episode during the wars between the ancient Greeks and Persians when a decisive victory was planned under a rose bower. Even in modern times the emblem of the rose is hung or depicted in council chambers to indicate secrecy and discretion. But the mystery of the rose is bound up with an older and greater secret that lies at its mystic centre and points to an archetypal paradise of perfection. In its fragrant folds lies the natural symbol of promised completion, sprung forth from the garden of Eros into the warmth of the sun. Its meaning is affected by the number of its petals: the four of the cardinal points, the five of the microcosm and the six of the macrocosm, the seven-petalled of space, time and conditions of matter, while the round rose is a mandala of concentric circles leading to the solar heart at its centre. The white rose is 'the flower of light' and portrays innocence, purity and spiritual unfolding. It finds its ultimate contrast in the fire of the red rose, whose crimson petals have been likened to drops of blood and passion bursting forth as Desire's own child. Early Christians believed that the whiteness of petals was due to the red rose being washed clean by the tears of Mary Magdalene, but the Greeks saw it the other way around and spoke of Dionysian libations whose wine-red drops had the power to produce the crimson rose. Other ancient tales describe the red bloom flowering forth from the heart of the fallen Adonis or from Roselia, who was struck in the heart by the arrow of a jealous Diana. Whatever the colour of the original rose, the red and the white together represent the union of fire and water depicted in the six-pointed star, and all other hues are the offspring of their generation.

 The rose is an ambivalent symbol, signifying both heavenly and earthly passion, eternity and time, life and death, virginity and fertility. In the Occident it occupies the position of the lotus as the mystic rose, but its spiritual significance shades into voluptuousness and all the passions associated with wine, sensuality and seduction. It is the central point of the rosy cross where duality is transcended but it also symbolizes the full spectrum of the female principle from the highest level of Buddhic purity to the most expressive suggestions of fertility and passion. The Hebrews likened its centre to the sun and the petals to the infinite but harmonious diversities of nature. They claimed that the rose emanated from the Tree of Life while the Moslems described the first circle of 'the rose of Baghdad' as representing cosmic law. The second circle they called the Path, the third, Knowledge, and the three together defined Truth and all the names of Allah. One is reminded of the lines of Keats: "A rosy sanctuary will I dress, with the wreath'd trellis of a working brain, With buds and bells, and stars without a name." The cosmic rose takes on parts and directions and thus shares in the symbolism of the circle and the cross. In the Kabbalistic Rose Croix these elements are most beautifully combined, blending in one symbol the Divine Light of the Universal Heart and the temporal world of pain and sacrifice. The rose on the cross signifies martyrdom, while on the Tree of Life it celebrates regeneration and resurrection.

 Of the scores of prevailing species of roses, eighty percent are native to Asia, fifteen percent to America and the rest to Europe and North Africa. All of these originally developed in the northern hemisphere only, and any roses found to the south of the equator were brought there by man. Hybridizing readily, it is difficult to determine a basic species, but all roses benefit from heavy pruning whereby the dead wood and the weak, twiggy growth are removed. In their growth pattern the odd leaflet is always at the apex, the others growing in pairs, while the flower has a fleshy hypanthium containing five sepals that encircle five petals with numerous stamens above them arranged in concentric whorls. The carpels in the hypanthium each contain one ovule and the stigmas at the end of them are capable of contacting the male anthers, resulting in self-fertilization. Thus in the nature of the rose the higher Triad is represented in the primary leaflets and man's emblematic number five is basic to the flower's growth, though its powers of self-fertilization would suggest the six of its macrocosmic symbolism. Its importance as a natural symbol has long been recognized, for Confucius reported that in the sixth century B.C. there were six hundred books on the rose in the library of the Chinese emperor. Growing roses was considered a lofty pursuit and the qualities of purity, sweetness and courage were likened to their bloom. In the ancient Greek world roses were associated with the cult of Venus, and Herodotus, marvelling at their cultivation in the elegant gardens of King Midas, noted a sixty-petalled variety among the bowers dedicated to that goddess. The Greeks carried the rose to Italy, Spain, France and even, perhaps, to England, although Pliny thought that the name Albion had to do with the fact that the white rose grew there. The Greeks gave the name p68ov (rodon) to the rose after the Isle of Rhodes where the Mistress of Helios had her cultural centre.

 In the Graeco-Roman world the rose was seen as the embodiment of love, triumph and joy. As the emblem of Venus-Aphrodite, it seemed to engender the human desire for the beautiful and to herald the resurrection of the spring. It marked the celebration of the Muses, the Graces and Eros, crowned with roses, who turned hearts and minds away from death towards life and the possibility of completion. Mother Nature was reborn and the bushes planted over graves burst forth in new bloom. Sweet Aphrodite must have thought of this when she embalmed the body of Hector with a rose compound. How dearly noble Andromache would have hoped for his quickened rebirth as she strove to gather in his soul. His full bloom of manhood had been struck down, its petals torn and soiled by the wrath of Achilles, but their perfume hovered over the broken walls of Ilium promising new life.

And the rose, like a nymph to the bath addrest
Which unveiled the depth of her glowing breast,
Till, fold after fold, to the fainting air
The soul of her beauty and love lay bare.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

 The voluptuous rose captures the conception of love which was common in classical times. It epitomizes sensuality and the madness of resistless passion. The mythical Zephyr became a rose so that Flora would kiss him and consummate their union. Both gods and humans smitten in the name of the rose have had a long time to suffer their passions, for the symbol of their ardour has been around for many an age, recorded in fossil remains as old as thirty-five million years. The ancient and overwhelming presence of the rose can only be guessed when considering the fifty-foot Gigantea species which grows in the foothills of the Himalayas eastward to the China coast. The heavy sweetness of the damask rose, which was carried to Europe by the Crusaders and which perfumed the courtyards and the banquet halls of Asia and the Mediterranean world, has flooded the imagination and the senses of poets and revellers alike. Fabled valleys filled with scent lulled to sleep the cares of life and invited dalliance in petal-softened bowers.

 The scent of the rose is so strong that a needle dipped into rose oil and touched to a handkerchief will leave its fragrant trace upon that cloth for months, though it be aired repeatedly. The preciousness of this potency may be appreciated in the fact that the yield of sixty thousand roses is required to produce one ounce of rose oil, a discovery attributed to an Indian queen. When the beautiful Princess Nurmahal was wed to the Mogul King Jehangir, they celebrated their union by rowing in a rose-water lake. As they dallied in the sunlit pond, the new queen noticed that a thin film of oil had covered its surface and she commanded hundreds of servants to skim this off with fine cotton wool and seal it in bottles. Thus the exquisite perfume of the rose was captured in essence and the queen's cleverness both pleased the senses of her powerful husband and ensured the marriage of her niece Mumtaz to the princely heir, Shah Jehan. It was for this beloved Mumtaz that the Taj Mahal was built, and to this day upon her coffin in the lower level of the tomb, sweet damask roses are strewn.The heavy fragrance of roses seems to have catapulted the Romans into an orgy of sensory indulgence. Under Roman rule, Egypt became a great rose-growing centre which supplied shiploads of blooms for the court. After six days at sea the Egyptian roses would arrive miraculously fresh, to be worn as wreaths and used as decorations at feasts, games, in spectator's boxes, along walkways of nobility, over porticoes and even in the market-place. Young men bedecked themselves with garlands of roses in council with their elders and they wore them into battle, decorating their chariots and shields with blooms.

 Rose-water was extravagantly used in fountains and baths by the rich, who also stuffed mattresses and pillows with their petals, made rose wine and jelly and even strapped pouches filled with their fragrance under their noses as they went abroad. The smell of roses in the streets of the capital was overwhelming and some, like the Emperor Heliogabalus, used roses as carpets for his frolicking guests. Apparently some even suffocated in their fragrant abundance. The power of the rose's scent was well understood by Cleopatra. Determined to arouse the ardour of Mark Antony, she prepared a room eighteen inches deep in roses, furnished with cushions and mattresses that were stuffed with their fragrance. To complete her seductive plans this calculating queen ordered rose petals strewn over a lake and supplied all her guests with rose crowns, the most fragrant of which was reserved for her Roman quarry.The identification of the rose as a symbol of terrestrial love is demonstrated at a more humble level in the simple love-charms of European peasantry. An ancient German formula advises the lover to wear three dark red, pale red, and white roses for three days concealed above the heart. The hopeful applicant is then told to immerse the blossoms in a bottle of wine for an equal length of time and serve it to the beloved without his knowledge of its contents. It was promised that he would then "love you with all his soul, and remain faithful to you all his life". This borders very closely upon medicinal uses of the rose, of which Pliny listed thirty-three types. It was included in almost all European medical recipes of the Middle Ages and some of the positive effects of these may have been due to the preponderance of vitamin C in the rose-hips. The power of the rose to heal the body is utterly eclipsed by its power to inflame the heart or inspire the soul. Shelley's lines, "Till, fold after fold, to the fainting air . . ." capture the flavour of a pagan era when divine madness competed with sensory glorification on an unparalleled scale. The monstrosity of Roman overindulgence was lamented by thoughtful observers who, like Horace and Martial, condemned the decadent extravagance and the ruination of the country's economy.

 Their criticism, however, was not aimed at the celebration of the rose as a symbol of love nor would any member of the ancient world have harshly denied the beauteous fullness of this most favoured flower. For they were still under the spell which, in 600 B.C., inspired the Greek poet Anacreon to write, "When the sea created the beautiful, dew-sparkling Venus, the earth, in its part, gave birth to this lovely plant, a masterpiece of nature, majestic on her thorny column, this immortal flower." The early Christians, in their violent reaction to the hedonistic extravagances of the Romans, rejected the rose as a vile flower, and it was not until the fifth century that the Queen of Flowers came back into favour. When it was again accepted, it was embraced with an enthusiasm almost as great as that of the ancient Latins. It soon became associated with the blood of the martyrs, the wounds of Christ and the Virgin Mary, who became known as Rosa Mystica. Her worshippers walked on rose petals at her festivals and the first rosaries associated with prayer were made of roses. Roses were again put on tombs and tales abounded about rose bushes growing out of graves. Rose gardens were kept in monasteries and beautiful rose-windows were placed in churches after the idea was brought from the Eastern world by the Crusaders. Thus the Christian rose was chastened and embraced but it carried a symbolic ambivalence within its folds which was unique to the post-pagan Occident and which expressed the dichotomy of spirit and matter so magnified by the early fathers of the church. The thorns of the rose became symbolic of the Fall from original grace and were said to have grown with the increasing sins of mankind. The cosmic rose had a catch to it which rent apart heaven and earth and divided the white from the red blossom.

 Viewing the lotus as an Oriental counterpart to the rose reveals an interesting shift in consciousness reflected in the transition of the symbol from the pre-Christian to Christian era. The pure lotus, emblem of the central Spiritual Sun from whence emanates all divine and terrestrial life, is also the symbol of feminine generative power. It is the Mother of the World whose one thousand petals contain the final revelation and transformation of the present world into a paradise of Truth. Like the cosmic rose, it is a macrocosmic and microcosmic mandala whose heart is the mystic centre, but it is ever connected to its umbilical stem which unites the lowest mud bank of mundane existence to the highest peak of enlightenment. The lotus-eyes of the dusky courtesan are part of the pathway that leads to understanding, and fear or shame do not separate the lover from the saint. In the ancient world and in the modern East the lotus has not undergone condemnation followed by a cunning readaptation. It has remained constant in its symbolic accommodation of the entirety of the sevenfold nature of man and the universe. The rose of ancient times paralleled this vast symbol and yet carried with its fragrance a nuance of what the Chinese called 'sweetness in desolation'. It bore within its bosom the seeds of its later overblown state that led to such a melancholy focus upon death. With the shift from eternal rebirth to the sadness of the fading bloom and the contemplation of personal death, the rose (almost imperceptibly at first) became increasingly identified with the desire to cling to life and capture its essence in time. The spiritual quest of the mystic rose was slowly transformed into the vigorous pursuit of sensory experience and the intoxicating dreams of man-made paradises. With this deviation from the true centre of things there was bound to spring up a reaction causing the pendulum of human thought and feeling to swing to the other side of the middle path. The shift in consciousness in relation to the symbol of the rose was not merely reflected in the pendulum's swing that marked the beginning of the Christian era. It began in earlier times, was incubated in barbaric innocence by the early Greeks and nurtured by the heavier hand of Roman power. Its seed was in the myth of Eve, buried in the Judaic garden of Eden which drew a screen, for the Western world, over a pagan delight in earthly beauties for their own sake.

 In being forced to readapt the rose because of its persistent popularity among the people, the church emphasized its association with eternal life in heaven, the crucifixion of Jesus and the martyrdom of the saints. The emblem of Venus-Aphrodite was made that of Mary, stripped of generative power. The pagan festal rose wreath was cruelly parodied in the crown of thorns which finally became the flowering halo of charity, virginity, holiness and peace. Throughout the Middle Ages the rose was the mark of the martyr and of redemption, but it was also a symbol of contrast. In the twelfth century St. Bernard gave a sermon comparing two archetypal women: Eve and Mary, the thorn of sin that brought evil and death into the world as opposed to the radiant flower that brings spiritual health. Mary was called the perfect, thornless rose that bore the flower of Christ. She was a rose, white with virtue in the love of God and red with charity and grief. Her powers of redemption were believed to be obtainable through the salvation offered in Christ, her son, who was approached on earth through his church. The mutual love of Christ and his church is symbolized by the Rose of Sharon mentioned in the Song of Solomon, and it indicates the necessary role of both in the business of salvation. Martyrdom and redemption took the place of pagan joy and resurrection, with a heavy emphasis upon vicarious atonement and institutionalized salvation. The rose began to lose some of its subtle fragrance and a waxed replica took its place.

 As if to dramatize in the world the separation and union of the white and the red rose, the civil struggle known as the War of the Roses engaged the Houses of York and Lancaster for thirty long and bloody years. The Rose Alba of the House of York was immortalized in the lines of Shakespeare's Henry VII, who cried, "Then will I raise aloft the milk-white rose, with whose sweet smell the air shall be perfumed." The Lancastrian's Rose Gallica was a red damask bloom brought to the British Isles from France. It was widely known from Europe to Persia and had been cultivated by the Median fire-worshippers of the Zoroastrian faith for use in their religious rituals. The terrible ambitions of men and the passion of their worldly desires produced the tragedy of the War of the Roses which was summed up in the words of Warwick (the Kingmaker), who said,

This brave today
Grown to this faction in the Temple Garden,
Shall send, between the red rose and the white,
A thousand souls to death and deadly night.

 It was only with the death of Richard III at Bosworth Field that the carnage ended and the Tudor rose, combining the white of York, mounted inside the red of Lancaster, was born. This royal heraldic device, along with other earlier coats of arms bearing the rose, was an emblem of honour, life and death. The most common rose was five-petailed, signifying the position of man, poised, as it were, between immortality and destruction. Worn in battle and jousting, it accompanied a code of chivalry based upon an older notion of spiritual ethics. To do right and vanquish evil, though clouded by the motives of ambitious men, was still the basis of honour and as such, cherished and transmitted through generations as a standard. But the quest for the truly mystic rose entails dangers met only by those who do battle with every dark corner of the human heart which, as though covered with thorny briars,has a terrible power to ensnare. The real heroes fight on amidst their fallen comrades, the thousand souls condemned "to death and deadly night". Their success requires a knowledge of the inner power of the symbol of the rose and an intuitive blending of thought and action.

 The contemporary probing of man's unconscious takes its cues from the nineteenth century investigation of his inner emotional life. Both are well-springs of symbols leading from a deeper unconscious to a more conditioned emotional expression. In probing these levels of mind, a symbolic method is required which can, through analogy and correspondence, accommodate several levels of meaning. Yeats was intensely interested in this process and felt that it was only through ancient symbols which have myriad meanings that any highly subjective art could escape from "the bareness and shallowness of a too conscious arrangement, into the abundance and depth of nature". In his Essays he described symbols as "the greatest of all powers whether they are used consciously by the masters of magic, or half-unconsciously by their successors, the poet, the musician and the artist". Thus for Yeats all great art involves, through complex colours and forms, natural symbols which are mirrors of the Divine Essence. The rose, as a symbol, is an eloquent reflection of the whole which contains in its nature all the poignancy of duality together with the seeming contradiction of life and death. In seeking an adequate symbolic method, one may compare the interpretations given the rose by influential modern thinkers.To Freud, the blossom represented the female sexual organ and was therefore linked to love and generation. His view reflects the folklore of Europe with its love-philtres and medicines as well as fairy-tales like that of the Sleeping Beauty. Sir James Frazer's focus upon the universality of the rose as a cultural symbol of the spirit of vegetation overcoming death with its fecundity is carried further into the deeper realms of the human psyche by Carl Jung, who likens the advent of the new rose to the rebirth of the Self and the death of the old. More in line with ancient and classical thinkers, Jung sees this as a pathway pointing to the wholeness and perfection of the sun.

 For him the rose is a mandala reoccurring in myths and dreams and he concludes that in the secular unconscious it is one of the few natural images that may occupy the mystic centre itself. Thus at different levels Freud and Jung have suggested elements of a symbolic method of interpretation utilizing dreams drawn from individual experience as they correspond with mythical patterns. Focussing upon the collective, Frazer and others have pointed to a cultural evolution of symbols in historical time and, though they drew attention to the similarities of belief and ritual between diverse cultures, they cannot provide us with a basis for understanding the essential nature of such a symbol as the rose. Freud recognized the enormous power of desire and was right in identifying its expression with the rose, but Jung's ideas provide greater depth concerning a universal level of shared human consciousness which is capable of participating in symbols of a cosmic order. None of these thinkers, however, offer us a method for unravelling and reconciling the elusive themes of terrestrial and spiritual love that belong equally to the rose. From a mystical perspective the story of the Sleeping Beauty could be interpreted in terms of the quest for the opening bloom of Buddhic understanding. Ancient mystical thought would suggest that she can only be approached by one who has the wisdom to alchemize the thorny roses strewn around her. The reconcilation of the earthly and the heavenly rose would require the resolute undertaking of this quest.

 In the Middle Ages love was codified into a system of rules and attitudes that came to be known as courtly love. Like the Virgin Mary, the superior woman was worshipped from afar, though in some cases the distance was bridged by a discreet and highly formalized mode of intimacy. Both the worship of the virginal ideal and the worship of the accessible beloved were based upon an intense sense of devotion and a willingness to sacrifice all. In either case the rose signified all the qualities that inspire such devotion, and its symbol became the main inspiration of Dante, in whose writings a reconcilation of heavenly and earthy love is attempted. He sought to unite courtly and religious attitudes towards love through the symbol of the rose, culminating in the Sunlit Rose that dominates the final cantos in Paradiso, which symbolizes the fulfilment of the spiritual quest. In his quest for the wholly spiritual Beatrice, Dante's love begins with that which he holds for the earthly woman. Accordingly, his original appreciation for the rose, which is her flower, is entirely temporal and he is caught in a longing which is a secular rival to the love he feels for God. But as Beatrice, like the rose, is in essence the reflection of a multifoliated symbol of heaven, Dante is able to pursue his love for her along the pathway of her higher nature which leads, like the mandala pattern, to the mystic centre of his quest. In the beatific vision of Paradiso, Dante beholds a gigantic white rose on whose petals are enthroned all the saints and whose bud opens wide to the sun. He has experienced a complete transmutation of his love which now takes on cosmic proportions and weds his own soul to its divine Source.

Far off, most secret and inviolate rose.

W.B. Yeats

 Yeats, in his own quest, struggled for this harmony between spirit and matter and his anguish was vividly expressed in his poetry. He seemed to seek a perfection that cannot be found this side of death and yet he continued to cling to the loves of this world.

Come near, come near, come near -
Ah,leave me still
A little space for the rose - breath to fill!
Lest I no more hear common things that crave
But seek alone to hear the strange things said
By God to the bright hearts of those long dead,
And learn to chaunt a tongue men do not know.

 He suffered, loving an earthly woman while at the same time hearing in his heart "the rustling of the rose-bordered dress of her who is ... more lovely than a bursting dawn to them that are lost in darkness". And so he pursued the quest of the Rosicrucian knight who dies in the service of the Rose. Gradually renouncing the world, he aspired to the realization of a natural religion founded on the revelation of manifest Truth which, for Initiates into the order of the Cross and the Rose, was symbolized in the living flower. For Yeats it was a realization of the perfect rose which bloomed within the depths of his own heart. In the story of the brothers in E.M. Forster's The Longest Journey, the death of one led to the realization of the other. Rickie reaches out towards the mystic rose but dies without attaining it. In saving Stephen from drowning in the current that carried the rose, Rickie gave up his life for a spirit which bore the hope of the future in its pursuit of the vision of the rose. The two brothers enact the dual nature of man out of which arises the higher aspiration that can find the courage to prune away the dead wood and follow the path leading back through the brambled undergrowth to the secret garden of the rose.

 By sealing within one's heart and suffering the poignantly sweet beauty of the opening bud, the agony of the thorns and the sadness of the fading fragrance of life, one can enter into the precinct of the mystic rose. Only by pursuing this quest will the Buddhic powers of analogy and correspondence unfold and the true symbolic method be discovered. All the poignant longings for perfection must be endured until the heart bleeds like red rose petals cast before the gateway of the Infinite. In the words of T.S. Eliot, "Only in time can the moment in the rose garden ... Be remembered, involved with past and future. Only through time time is conquered." The laughter in the garden, the echoed ecstasy of long ago when the maiden's hope was fresh - this must not be made a sadly pressed flower of memory but surely grasped like the rose with all its thorns and held forth as a symbol of perfectibility, as a sweet guide on the longest journey of the soul. Only thus will the red rose of fiery hope find its way to the sanctuary of the virgin bloom and unite its heart's desire to the pure white light of the cosmic rose. The red rose will be encircled by the white even as it embraces its full bloom with its crimson hue and heaven and earth unite.

And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

T. S. Eliot