One of the most beautiful and significant symbols of the Western Mysteries is the Rose. The Rose and the Grail share many spiritual resonances. The word ‘chalice’ comes from the Latin word, calyx, which means cup, and is the name given to the cup-like sepals of a flower which support the petals. Both these symbols suggest the receptive vessel of the soul, opening to receive the in-pouring of Divine influence. Indeed the symbolism of the Rose is even more complex than the Grail, given the beauty of its form, the number and arrangement of the petals with their velvety texture, the intoxicating perfume and, deep inside, the hidden golden heart enfolded within the petals, concealing the Mystery of the Centre. A 12th century Persian poet wrote, “Mystery glows in the rose bed, the secret is hidden in the rose.” Not surprisingly, the rose has long been recognized as the western equivalent of the eastern lotus as a symbol of the unfolding of higher consciousness.
In medieval Europe, the Rose as a symbol of union with the divine may have been influenced by Arabian and Persian teachings from the time when Spain was an Islamic country. The Sufi teacher, Hazrat Inayat Khan writes:
Just as the rose consists of many petals held together, so the person who attains to the unfoldment of the soul begins to show many different qualities. The qualities emit fragrance in the form of a spiritual personality. The rose has a beautiful structure, and the personality which proves the unfoldment of the soul has also a fine structure, in manner, in dealing with others, in speech, in action. The atmosphere of a spiritual being pervades the air like the perfume of a rose.
The Goddess and the Rose
Alexander the Great was said to have brought roses to the West, and they can be discovered in profusion in the mythology of classical Greece. Hecate, goddess of the crossroads and the underworld was sometimes depicted wearing on her head a garland of five-petalled roses. Roses are particularly associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of love. One legend tells that the first roses sprang from her tears while another says that it was a gift for gods to celebrate her rising from the sea. Yet another story goes that the rose was originally white, but became red when the goddess pricked her feet on the thorns as she sought her slain lover. In Rome, an effigy of the goddess Cybele, known as the Magna Mater, (Great Mother) was celebrated by being carried in procession covered with roses. A Greek legend tells that it was Cybele herself who created the rose, as she was jealous of Aphrodite and wanted to make something on earth more beautiful than her in their rivalry for Adonis. The priestess of Aphrodite wore wreaths of white roses, and the paths of her sanctuary were strewn with roses.
In the Roman era, Aphrodite became Venus, to whom the rose was also sacred. It was also in Rome that the ancient expression, sub rosa, ‘under the rose,’ originated, referring to the ancient custom of hanging a rose over a council table to indicate that everything spoken was to remain secret. This custom may have derived from an ancient Egypt image of Horus, the divine son of Isis, called Harpocrates by the Greeks, sitting within a rose with his finger to his lips, ordaining silence about the mysteries.
The Faery Rose
As the rose was sacred to the goddess, it stands to reason that it should also be sacred to the Faery Queen. Her rose is the original wild variety which had five green sepals and five petals in a circle. Her other special flowers, the apple-blossom and the hawthorn, also have five petals apiece, and belong to the same family as the Rose. As you learned in the course on Sacred Earth Magic, faeries are attracted to rose oil.
In Germany, the rose belongs to the dwarves and is under their protection. In many places it is customary to ask permission of their king before picking lest one lose a hand or foot. In the famous story of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty’s father plucks a rose for his daughter which angers the Otherworld denizen of the land.
She had na pu'd a double rose,
Tamlin had now become the Guardian or Genus Loci of the sacred well, and was angry that his roses had been picked by an intruder. Yet, as the flower of love, the rose in this ballad is also a prelude to the coming union between Janet and Tamlin.
The Rose also appears in connection with the Underworld goddess in the German story of Tannhäuser, a 13th century minnesinger, or troubadour, whose adventures were retold in Wagner’s famous opera of the same name. Although laced with some heavy Christian moralising, the story is essentially the same as that of the Scottish legend of Thomas the Rhymer, whose meeting with the queen of Elfland and journey with her into the Eildon Hills, is one of the fundamental stories of the UnderRealm and Faery tradition, as recounted in the first course in this series. Tannhäuser is riding by the Mountain of Venus, when the goddess herself appears before him ‘as a white, glimmering figure of matchless beauty.’ The Rose of the goddess is all around her: a soft roseate light glows around her, and her handmaidens scatter roses at her feet. She leads the lovestruck minstrel into the mountain, and wherever she steps, flowers spring up to create a ‘radiant track.’ Tannhäuser follows her into her palace deep in the heart of the mountain and spends seven years there in delight and revelry, just as Thomas did with the Faery Queen.
During the era of courtly love in 12th century France, the Rose became the chief symbol of the newly re-emerging feminine principle. It represented romantic love, and especially the beloved lady herself, in many of the poems of the troubadours. Under Christianity, the foremost personification of the Divine Feminine was, of course, the Virgin Mary, so it was perhaps inevitable that the Rose became her special flower as it had been for the goddesses of old.
So Mary became the Mystic Rose, just as she had become an image of the Grail. One legend goes that the Archangel Gabriel wove 150 roses into three wreaths for Mary. Red roses became the symbol of Mary’s sorrows, as they had once been for Aphrodite, only now the reason given was that drops of Christ’s blood spilt upon a thornbush. White roses signified Mary’s joy, and the golden rose her glory. So similar were these devotions to the pagan goddess of old, that in 440 C.E., Isidore of Pelusium warned: “We should really be more careful in marking the difference between the heathen Magna Mater and our Magna Mater Mary.”
Mary was given many rose-names, including Rose of Sharon, the Rose-garland, the Wreath of Roses, and Queen of the Most Holy Rose-garden. The litany of Loreto called her ‘Rosa Mystica,’ the Mystic Rose. She was often addressed as the ‘Rose without a Thorn’ because she was as pure as the original rose that grew in the Garden of Eden. According to the Christian legend, the thorns came only when it was planted on earth after Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden. Mary was regarded as a ‘second Eve’ whose purity restored her to the paradise from which Eve had been driven. She was considered the perfect example of our union with God, so the Rose became a symbol of the union between Christ and Mary, as in this 15th century poem:
There is no rose of such vertu
When the magnificent Gothic cathedrals soared above the skyline of medieval cities from the 12th century onwards, many of them displayed ‘rose windows,’ beautiful circular mandalas illuminated with richly-colored stained glass.
The Rose Garden
The Cistercian monks created beautiful rose gardens in the cloisters of their monasteries, and the Cistercian monk, Alanus de Insulis, described the earthly paradise as a place of the eternal spring, flaming with roses that never wither or die.
One of the greatest works of medieval literature is The Romance of the Rose, an allegory of courtly love composed by two French poets in the 13th century. It tells how a young man dreams of a beautiful rose which he desires above all else. He enters a four-square rose garden in search of the Rose that is held captive within. Some esoteric scholars believe that rather than extolling romantic love, The Romance of the Rose is a treatise on spiritual initiation, whose true purpose was deliberately concealed in allegorical images to avoid the censure of the church. A. E. Waite writes:
In many medieval paintings, Mary is pictured within a hortus conclusus, a walled garden filled with roses. The walled garden is womb-like, and Mary was sometimes regarded as the garden itself, the virginal matrix in which the Son of Light was conceived and brought to birth. She may be seated beneath a rose arbor or before a tapestry of roses, wreathed with a rose crown and holding a white rose. The rose takes the place of a Queen's scepter, suggesting that her power comes from divine love rather than worldly elevation. Love is the only key that can unlock the door to the garden and reveal the secret of the hidden rose.
Excerpted from the Avalon Mystery School, Course III