Thomas Hudson, Portrait of a Lady with a Basket of Roses, circa1745
Roses have played an important role in art, religion and commerce from the time of ancient Crete almost four thousand years ago. Roses also occur as a continuing theme in the myth and folklore of the various cultures from that time forward.
However, their use as symbols, whether metaphorically or allegorically, is not recorded with any significance until the texts of classic Athenian literature. In the eighth century BC epic poem, Illiad, Homer tells us how Hectorís body was anointed with rose oil after his death at Achilles hand. Apart from the obvious reason for anointing a body with scented oils, the practice may owe its origins to the folklore of the time.
The early Greeks (and later, the Romans with their mythological counterparts) inexorably linked the rose to love, beauty, purity and passion. According to the poet Anacreon, seafoam dripping from the body of Aphrodite as she is born turns into white roses; thus representing her purity and innocence. Later, when she is trying to help her wounded lover, Adonis, Aphrodite sheds a few drops of blood onto a white rose and changes it to red; thus representing her desire and passion.
Many rose myths of classical Greece include Eros, the sometimes mischievous symbol of love and earthly desires. In one of the most famous love stories in all of literature, Eros eventually weds Psyche. After the ceremony, Zeus daughters, the hours (seasons) and the graces (charities), make everything "glow with roses" and scatter the blossoms about the land.
Most scholarly accounts describe the story of Psyche as an allegorical representation of mankindís soul (from the Greek word psych, literally translated as "breath," "life" or "soul"). Thus, when love and desire (represented as Eros) are "wedded" to the soul of mankind (represented as Psyche), the seasons bring forth roses which spread the magical powers of Zeus across the land.
To this day, roses are similarly represented in Greek folklore. In the folktale of "The Monk," the hero prince leans over a sleeping princess to kiss her, after which he receives a pair of roses and subsequently uses their magical powers to escape his evil pursuers. Presumably, the love he holds for the princess saves him from the evil wrongdoers -- a direct correlation to the magic of roses from ancient Greek mythology.
Whatever the Greeks did to their rose mythology, the Romans embellished many times over.
The creation of the rose is usually attributed to Flora, the goddess of spring and flowers and the subject of many rose myths. After one of her nymphs dies, Flora calls upon the gods to change her into a beautiful flower. Apollo gives her life; Bacchus gives her nectar; Vertumnus, a beautiful perfume; Pomona, a fruit; and Flora, a "crown" of petals. The myth continues when Cupid, son of Venus and the Roman counterpart to Eros, shoots arrows at bees which have stung him. Thorns (more correctly called "prickles") grow from the rose stems where his arrows missed their mark.