Rose Color Folklore

The Rose Garden at Wargemont
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Rose Garden at Wargemont, circa 1879


In Roman mythology, roses can also represent pain, suffering and death. Apollo turns Rhodanthe into a rose (and her attendants into its thorns) when she unsuccessfully tries to unseat his sister, Diana, as the goddess of the hunt and protectress of women.

These less romantic representations reappear in European and Near Eastern folklore as a result of Romeís expanding empire and influence over its populace. Throughout ancient Christendom, the red rose is often used to symbolize the blood and agony of the crucifixion of Jesus; the five petals, representing his five wounds. In England, the rosarian prunes red roses carefully; for if the petals fall from a red rose as it is being cut, bad luck will follow. In Italy, fully open roses are not given as a gift because death will befall a relative of the recipient.

The ancient Persians are not without their own myths and folklore, too. The Islamic invasions of the seventh century and subsequent destruction of records leave modern rose scholars little to study, however.

One of the most noted fables of the time comes from the seventh century and involves Mohammed himself. After one of his wives is accused of adultery, the prophet is instructed by an angel to have her cast a bouquet of red roses into a pool of water. If the roses turn yellow, she would be guilty of the act; if not, her innocence would be proven. As legends go, the bouquet turns yellow and hence we now have yellow roses. In fact, the bouquet remained the same color and (again, according to another legend) the laws for determining adulterous behavior were changed.

We also know from eleventh century Sufi poetry that the rose became the symbol of life -- its beauty a metaphorical representation of perfection, and the thorns a representation of the difficulties one must overcome to reach that perfection.

Even as late as the first half of the twentieth century, the folklore of Islamic Morocco dictates that rosewater should be mixed with saffron and used in writing special charms in the pre-dawn hours of the first Sunday of the month. Rosewater is considered a purification agent in clothes. Roses, created in the form of amulets, are to be worn as protection against the "evil eye." And crushed roses or rose hips are frequently applied to tombstones, especially those of women.

Whether this latter practice is directly linked to Islam or to the Romans as their empire spread across most of Europe, the Near East and northern Africa is subject to scholarly debate. The use of roses as a part of burial rituals can be found throughout the former Empire of Rome, including Wales where white roses are to be placed on the grave of young children as a sign of their innocence.

Just as the Islamic Empire was spreading throughout western Asia and northern Africa, the post-Roman influence waned in central and western Europe. The cultivation and use of roses, closely associated with pantheistic Rome, was frowned upon by the early Christian churches of the Dark Ages. Its use in myths of the time is associated with deception and trickery. In the tale of Merlin and Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, Arthurís wizard is entrapped in a tower created from a white rose while he is walking in the Breceliande forest.

It is not until the Christians adopt the rose as a symbol of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and hence a symbol of motherhood and purity, that the rose regains significance in medieval Europe. Even so, its use in folklore is a mixed bag of metaphors.

In one medieval myth, Emperor Ludwig of Germany is protected by a rose while sleeping overnight in the woods. After hanging his crucifix onto a thorn bush fashioned into an altar, he awakens to discover the bramble has changed to a rose and builds a chapel in its honor.

In another, Rosamond, mistress to King Henry II of England, is killed by a potion disguised with roses and concocted by the kingís wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. The grave of Rosamond sprouts a rose now called Rosa Mundi, and bears both pink and white colors.

By the 14th century, English folklore associated the color of roses with many literary secondary meanings. One author who wrote under the pseudonym of Sir John Mandeville relates a Jewish folktale about Zillah and Hamuel. The maiden, Zillah, is falsely accused by Hamuel because she rebuffs his romantic advances. The punishment for her alleged crime is burning at the stake. But the ensuing fire does not kill Zillah and in its ashes white roses grow symbolizing Zillahís innocence and purity. The fire does kill Hamuel, however. And in his ashes red roses grow, symbolizing treachery and dishonesty.

Early Americana is not without its own rose folklore, too. The Cherokee Native Americans tell of a maiden, Nunnshi, who is saved from an enemy attack when she prays for protection. The white Cherokee Rose (Rosa laevigata) grows up around Nunnshi to protect her from being trampled. To this day, white roses are traditionally worn at weddings in the belief they will bring happiness and security.

Today, folklore and tradition have attached associations to rose colors:

  • Red - Love, respect
  • Deep pink - Gratitude, appreciation
  • Light pink - Admiration, sympathy
  • White - Reverence, humility
  • Yellow - Joy, gladness
  • Orange - Enthusiasm, desire
  • Red & yellow blends - Gaiety, joviality
  • Pale blended tones - Sociability, friendship

It is a certainty, however, every culture has its own interpretations based on its folklore formulated long ago.
By Mark Whitelaw, Kindly Provided by Laura Whitelaw

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