Roses & romance, where botany & culture collide

In the US, it is estimated that more than 250 million roses are gifted on Valentine’s Day, costing celebrants about $1.9 billion.  The holiday is celebrated worldwide in countries with current or historic ties to Catholicism. The holiday is celebrated perhaps most enthusiastically in the Philippines where  large group weddings are hosted by local government. They often include free flowers and cake, and sometimes even wedding rings!

Roses have been intertwined with Valentine’s Day at least since English poet Chaucer (1343-1425) wrote about it. His dream-vision poem ‘The Parliament of Fowls’ declared St. Valentine the patron saint of mating birds and people alike. Why did a martyred saint’s day become romantic? Many believe this was done by the Catholic Church to Christianize a pagan Roman fertility festival Lupericalia, celebrated Feb. 13-15, after it had been outlawed.

Poets throughout history, attributed the rose’s aphrodisiac allure to its scent. Famously, Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) Juliet declared, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

For the rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem

For that sweet odour which doth in it live.

Shakespear’s Sonnet 54

Long before Shakespeare and Chaucer, the rose wove its way through Greek and Roman mythology. The goddess of beauty and love, Aphrodite/Venus, is often depicted with a rose crown. Greek poet Anacreon wrote that the first rose was born with Aphrodite; a white rose. Later, it is fabled to have gotten its red color from her blood, sprayed on its petals by her let cut with its thorns. She incurred the injury while rushing in vain to save her lover Adonos from Ares, the jealous god of war posing as a wild boar who killed him.

Cupid in Ambush, between 1880 and 1920, unattributed, Library of Congress.

Difficult to overlook is the propensity of poets through the ages to equate the rose with female anatomy; in many passages it is used to thinly veil explicit descriptions of intercourse. I’ll forgo quoting the copious raunchy examples.  “Plucking a rose” came to mean taking a woman’s virginity as far back as Guillaume de Lorris’ famous Roman de la Rose circa 1230 in France. Artists have embraced this symbolism as well; perhaps most famously (according to feminist art historian interpretation) is Georgia O’Keefe.

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Happy Romancing!

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