CHAPTER 12 – PLANTS AND THEIR CEREMONIAL USE.
In the earliest period of primitive society flowers seem to have been largely used for ceremonial purposes. Tracing their history downwards up to the present day, we find how extensively, throughout the world, they have entered into sacred and other rites. This is not surprising when we remember how universal have been the love and admiration for these choice and lovely productions of nature’s handiwork. From being used as offerings in the old heathen worship they acquired an additional veneration, and became associated with customs which had important significance. Hence the great quantity of flowers required, for ceremonial purposes of various kinds, no doubt promoted and encouraged a taste for horticulture even among uncultured tribes. Thus the Mexicans had their famous floating gardens, and in the numerous records handed down of social life, as it existed in different countries, there is no lack of references to the habits and peculiarities of the vegetable world.
Again, from all parts of the world, the histories of bygone centuries have contributed their accounts of the rich assortment of flowers in demand for the worship of the gods, which are valuable as indicating how elaborate and extensive was the knowledge of plants in primitive periods, and how magnificent must have been the display of these beautiful and brilliant offerings. Amongst some tribes, too, so sacred were the flowers used in religious rites held, that it was forbidden so much as to smell them, much less to handle them, except by those whose privileged duty it was to arrange them for the altar. Coming down to the historic days of Greece and Rome, we have abundant details of the skill and care that were displayed in procuring for religious purposes the finest and choicest varieties of flowers; abundant allusions to which are found in the old classic writings.
The profuseness with which flowers were used in Rome during triumphal processions has long ago become proverbial, in allusion to which Macaulay says:–
“On they ride to the Forum,
While laurel boughs, and flowers,
From house-tops and from windows,
Fell on their crests in showers.”
Flowers, in fact, were in demand on every conceivable occasion, a custom which was frequently productive of costly extravagance. Then there was their festival of the Floralia, in honour of the reappearance of spring-time, with its hosts of bright blossoms, a survival of which has long been kept up in this country on May Day, when garlands and carols form the chief feature of the rustic merry-making. Another grand ceremonial occasion, when flowers were specially in request, was the Fontinalia, an important day in Rome, for the wells and fountains were crowned with flowers:–
“Fontinalia festus erat dies Romae, quo in fontes
coronas projiciebant, puteosque coronabant, ut a quibus pellucidos
liquores at restinguendam sitim acciperent, iisdem gratiam referre hoc
A pretty survival of this festival has long been observed in the well-dressing of Tissington on Ascension Day, when the wells are most beautifully decorated with leaves and flowers, arranged in fanciful devices, interwoven into certain symbols and texts. This floral rite is thus described in “The Fleece”:–
“With light fantastic toe, the nymphs
Thither assembled, thither every swain;
And o’er the dimpled stream a thousand flowers,
Pale lilies, roses, violets and pinks,
Mix’d with the greens of bouret, mint, and thyme,
And trefoil, sprinkled with their sportive arms,
Such custom holds along th’ irriguous vales,
From Wreken’s brow to rocky Dolvoryn,
Sabrina’s early haunt.”
With this usage may be compared one performed by the fishermen of Weymouth, who on the first of May put out to sea for the purpose of scattering garlands of flowers on the waves, as a propitiatory offering to obtain food for the hungry. “This link,” according to Miss Lambert, “is but another link in the chain that connects us with the yet more primitive practice of the Red Indian, who secures passage across the Lake Superior, or down the Mississippi, by gifts of precious tobacco, which he wafts to the great spirit of the Flood on the bosom of its waters.”
By the Romans a peculiar reverence seems to have attached to their festive garlands, which were considered unsuitable for wearing in public. Hence, any person appearing in one was liable to punishment, a law which was carried out with much rigour. On one occasion, Lucius Fulvius, a banker, having been convicted at the time of the second Punic war, of looking down from the balcony of a house with a chaplet of roses on his head, was thrown into prison by order of the Senate, and here kept for sixteen years, until the close of the war. A further case of extreme severity was that of P. Munatius, who was condemned by the Triumviri to be put in chains for having crowned himself with flowers from the statue of Marsyas.
Allusions to such estimation of garlands in olden times are numerous in the literature of the past, and it may be remembered how Montesquieu remarked that it was with two or three hundred crowns of oak that Rome conquered the world.
Guests at feasts wore garlands of flowers tied with the bark of the linden tree, to prevent intoxication; the wreath having been framed in accordance with the position of the wearer. A poet, in his paraphrase on Horace, thus illustrates this custom:–
“Nay, nay, my boy, ’tis not for me
This studious pomp of Eastern luxury;
Give me no various garlands fine
With linden twine;
Nor seek where latest lingering blows
The solitary rose.”
Not only were the guests adorned with flowers, but the waiters, drinking-cups, and room, were all profusely decorated. “In short,” as the author of “Flower-lore” remarks, “it would be difficult to name the occasions on which flowers were not employed; and, as almost all plants employed in making garlands had a symbolical meaning, the garland was composed in accordance with that meaning.” Garlands, too, were thrown to actors on the stage, a custom which has come down to the present day in an exaggerated form.
Indeed, many of the flowers in request nowadays for ceremonial uses in our own and other countries may be traced back to this period; the symbolical meaning attached to certain plants having survived after the lapse of many centuries. For a careful description of the flowers thus employed, we would refer the reader to two interesting papers contributed by Miss Lambert to the _Nineteenth Century_, in which she has collected together in a concise form all the principal items of information on the subject in past years. A casual perusal of these papers will suffice to show what a wonderful knowledge of botany the ancients must have possessed; and it may be doubted whether the most costly array of plants witnessed at any church festival supersedes a similar display witnessed by worshippers in the early heathen temples. In the same way, we gain an insight into the profusion of flowers employed by heathen communities in later centuries, showing how intimately associated these have been with their various forms of worship. Thus, the Singhalese seem to have used flowers to an almost incredible extent, and one of their old chronicles tells us how the Ruanwellé dagoba–270 feet high–was festooned with garlands from pedestal to pinnacle, till it had the appearance of one uniform bouquet. We are further told that in the fifteenth century a certain king offered no less than 6,480,320 sweet-smelling flowers at the shrine of the tooth; and, among the regulations of the temple at Dambedenia in the thirteenth century, one prescribes that “every day an offering of 100,000 blossoms, and each day a different kind of flower,” should be presented. This is a striking instance, but only one of many.
“With regard to Greece, there are few of our trees and flowers,” writes Mr. Moncure Conway, “which were not cultivated in the gorgeous gardens of Epicurus, Pericles, and Pisistratus.” Among the flowers chiefly used for garlands and chaplets in ceremonial rites we find the rose, violet, anemone, thyme, melilot, hyacinth, crocus, yellow lily, and yellow flowers generally. Thucydides relates how, in the ninth year of the Peloponnesian War, the temple of Juno at Argos was burnt down owing to the priestess Chrysis having set a lighted torch too near the garlands and then fallen asleep. The garlands caught fire, and the damage was irremediable before she was conscious of the mischief. The gigantic scale on which these floral ceremonies were conducted may be gathered from the fact that in the procession of Europa at Corinth a huge crown of myrtle, thirty feet in circumference, was borne. At Athens the myrtle was regarded as the symbol of authority, a wreath of its leaves having been worn by magistrates. On certain occasions the mitre of the Jewish high priest was adorned with a chaplet of the blossoms of the henbane. Of the further use of garlands, we are told that the Japanese employ them very freely; both men and women wearing chaplets of fragrant blossoms. A wreath of a fragrant kind of olive is the reward of literary merit in China. In Northern India the African marigold is held as a sacred flower; they adorn the trident emblem of Mahádivá with garlands of it, and both men and women wear chaplets made of its flowers on his festivals. Throughout Polynesia garlands have been habitually worn on seasons of “religious solemnity or social rejoicing,” and in Tonga they were employed as a token of respect. In short, wreaths seem to have been from a primitive period adopted almost universally in ceremonial rites, having found equal favour both with civilised as well as uncivilised communities. It will probably, too, always be so.
Flowers have always held a prominent place in wedding ceremonies, and at the present day are everywhere extensively used. Indeed, it would be no easy task to exhaust the list of flowers which have entered into the marriage customs of different countries, not to mention the many bridal emblems of which they have been made symbolical. As far back as the time of Juno, we read, according to Homer’s graphic account, how:–
“Glad earth perceives, and from her bosom pours
Unbidden herbs and voluntary flowers:
Thick, new-born violets a soft carpet spread,
And clust’ring lotos swelled the rising bed;
And sudden hyacinths the earth bestrow,
And flamy crocus made the mountain glow.”
According to a very early custom the Grecian bride was required to eat a quince, and the hawthorn was the flower which formed her wreath, which at the present day is still worn at Greek nuptials, the altar being decked with its blossoms. Among the Romans the hazel held a significant position, torches having been burnt on the wedding evening to insure prosperity to the newly-married couple, and both in Greece and Rome young married couples were crowned with marjoram. At Roman weddings, too, oaken boughs were carried during the ceremony as symbols of fecundity; and the bridal wreath was of verbena, plucked by the bride herself. Holly wreaths were sent as tokens of congratulation, and wreaths of parsley and rue were given under a belief that they were effectual preservatives against evil spirits. In Germany, nowadays, a wreath of vervain is presented to the newly-married bride; a plant which, on account of its mystic virtues, was formerly much used for love-philtres and charms. The bride herself wears a myrtle wreath, as also does the Jewish maiden, but this wreath was never given either to a widow or a divorced woman. Occasionally, too, it is customary in Germany to present the bride and bridegroom with an almond at the wedding banquet, and in the nuptial ceremonies of the Czechs this plant is distributed among the guests. In Switzerland so much importance was in years past attached to flowers and their symbolical significance that, “a very strict law was in force prohibiting brides from wearing chaplets or garlands in the church, or at any time during the wedding feast, if they had previously in any way forfeited their rights to the privileges of maidenhood.” With the Swiss maiden the edelweiss is almost a sacred flower, being regarded as a proof of the devotion of her lover, by whom it is often gathered with much risk from growing in inaccessible spots. In Italy, as in days of old, nuts are scattered at the marriage festival, and corn is in many cases thrown over the bridal couple, a survival of the old Roman custom of making offerings of corn to the bride. A similar usage prevails at an Indian wedding, where, “after the first night, the mother of the husband, with all the female relatives, comes to the young bride and places on her head a measure of corn–emblem of fertility. The husband then comes forward and takes from his bride’s head some handfuls of the grain, which he scatters over himself.” As a further illustration we may quote the old Polish custom, which consisted of visitors throwing wheat, rye, oats, barley, rice, and beans at the door of the bride’s house, as a symbol that she never would want any of these grains so long as she did her duty. In the Tyrol is a fine grove of pine-trees–the result of a long-established custom for every newly united couple to plant a marriage tree, which is generally of the pine kind. Garlands of wild asparagus are used by the Boeotians, while with the Chinese the peach-blossom is the popular emblem of a bride.
In England, flowers have always been largely employed in the wedding ceremony, although they have varied at different periods, influenced by the caprice of fashion. Thus, it appears that flowers were once worn by the betrothed as tokens of their engagement, and Quarles in his “Sheapheard’s Oracles,” 1646, tells us how,
Compose rush-rings and myrtle-berry chains,
And stuck with glorious kingcups, and their bonnets
Adorn’d with laurell slips, chaunt their love sonnets.”
Spenser, too, in his “Shepherd’s Calendar” for April, speaks of “Coronations and sops in wine worn of paramours”–sops in wine having been a nickname for pinks (_Dianthus plumarius_), although Dr. Prior assigns the name to _Dianthus caryophyllus_. Similarly willow was worn by a discarded lover. In the bridal crown, the rosemary often had a distinguished place, besides figuring at the ceremony itself, when it was, it would seem, dipped in scented water, an allusion to which we find in Beaumont and Fletcher’s “Scornful Lady,” where it is asked, “Were the rosemary branches dipped?” Another flower which was entwined in the bridal garland was the lily, to which Ben Jonson refers in speaking of the marriage of his friend Mr. Weston with the Lady Frances Stuart:–
“See how with roses and with lilies shine,
Lilies and roses (flowers of either sex),
The bright bride’s paths.”
It was also customary to plant a rose-bush at the head of the grave of a deceased lover, should either of them die before the wedding. Sprigs of bay were also introduced into the bridal wreath, besides ears of corn, emblematical of the plenty which might always crown the bridal couple. Nowadays the bridal wreath is almost entirely composed of orange-blossom, on a background of maiden-hair fern, with a sprig of stephanotis interspersed here and there. Much uncertainty exists as to why this plant was selected, the popular reason being that it was adopted as an emblem of fruitfulness. According to a correspondent of _Notes and Queries_, the practice may be traced to the Saracens, by whom the orange-blossom was regarded as a symbol of a prosperous marriage–a circumstance which is partly to be accounted for by the fact that in the East the orange-tree bears ripe fruit and blossom at the same time.
Then there is the bridal bouquet, which is a very different thing from what it was in years gone by. Instead of being composed of the scarcest and most costly flowers arranged in the most elaborate manner, it was a homely nosegay of mere country flowers–some of the favourite ones, says Herrick, being pansy, rose, lady-smock, prick-madam, gentle-heart, and maiden-blush. A spray of gorse was generally inserted, in allusion, no doubt, to the time-honoured proverb, “When the furze is out of bloom, kissing is out of fashion.” In spring-time again, violets and primroses were much in demand, probably from being in abundance at the season; although they have generally been associated with early death.
Among the many floral customs associated with the wedding ceremony may be mentioned the bridal-strewings, which were very prevalent in past years, a survival of which is still kept up at Knutsford, in Cheshire. On such an occasion, the flowers used were emblematical, and if the bride happened to be unpopular, she often encountered on her way to the church flowers of a not very complimentary meaning. The practice was not confined to this country, and we are told how in Holland the threshold of the newly-married couple was strewn with flowers, the laurel being as a rule most conspicuous among the festoons. Lastly, the use of flowers in paying honours to the dead has been from time immemorial most widespread. Instances are so numerous that it is impossible to do more than quote some of the most important, as recorded in our own and other countries. For detailed accounts of these funereal floral rites it would be necessary to consult the literature of the past from a very early period, and the result of such inquiries would form material enough for a goodly-sized volume. Therespect for the dead among the early Greeks was very great, and Miss Lambert quotes the complaint of Petala to Simmalion, in the Epistles of Alciphron, to show how special was the dedication of flowers to the dead:–“I have a lover who is a mourner, not a lover; he sends me garlands and roses as if to deck a premature grave, and he says he weeps through the live-long night.”
The chief flowers used by them for strewing over graves were the polyanthus, myrtle, and amaranth; the rose, it would appear from Anacreon, having been thought to possess a special virtue for the dead:–
“When pain afflicts and sickness grieves,
Its juice the drooping heart relieves;
And after death its odours shed
A pleasing fragrance o’er the dead.”
And Electra is represented as complaining that the tomb of her father, Agamemnon, had not been duly adorned with myrtle–
“With no libations, nor with myrtle boughs,
Were my dear father’s manes gratified.”
The Greeks also planted asphodel and mallow round their graves, as the seeds of these plants were supposed to nourish the dead. Mourners, too, wore flowers at the funeral rites, and Homer relates how the Thessalians used crowns of amaranth at the burial of Achilles. The Romans were equally observant, and Ovid, when writing from the land of exile, prayed his wife–“But do you perform the funeral rites for me when dead, and offer chaplets wet with your tears. Although the fire shall have changed my body into ashes, yet the sad dust will be sensible of your pious affection.” Like the Greeks, the Romans set a special value on the rose as a funeral flower, and actually left directions that their graves should be planted with this favourite flower, a custom said to have been introduced by them into this country. Both Camden and Aubrey allude to it, and at the present day in Wales white roses denote the graves of young unmarried girls.
Coming down to modern times, we find the periwinkle, nicknamed “death’s flower,” scattered over the graves of children in Italy–notably Tuscany–and in some parts of Germany the pink is in request for this purpose. In Persia we read of:–
“The basil-tuft that waves
Its fragrant blossoms over graves;”
And among the Chinese, roses, the anemone, and a species of lycoris are planted over graves. The Malays use a kind of basil, and in Tripoli tombs are adorned with such sweet and fragrant flowers as the orange, jessamine, myrtle, and rose. In Mexico the Indian carnation is popularly known as the “flower of the dead,” and the people of Tahiti cover their dead with choice flowers. In America the Freemasons place twigs of acacia on the coffins of brethren. The Buddhists use flowers largely for funeral purposes, and an Indian name for the tamarisk is the “messenger of Yama,” the Indian God of Death. The people of Madagascar have a species of mimosa, which is frequently found growing on the tombs, and in Norway the funeral plants are juniper and fir. In France the custom very largely nourishes, roses and orange-blossoms in the southern provinces being placed in the coffins of the young. Indeed, so general is the practice in France that, “sceptics and believers uphold it, and statesmen, and soldiers, and princes, and scholars equally with children and maidens are the objects of it.”
Again, in Oldenburg, it is said that cornstalks must be scattered about a house in which death has entered, as a charm against further misfortune, and in the Tyrol an elder bush is often planted on a newly-made grave.
In our own country the practice of crowning the dead and of strewing their graves with flowers has prevailed from a very early period, a custom which has been most pathetically and with much grace described by Shakespeare in “Cymbeline” (Act iv. sc. 2):–
“With fairest flowers,
Whilst summer lasts, and I live here, Fidele,
I’ll sweeten thy sad grave: thou shalt not lack
The flower that’s like thy face, pale primrose; nor
The azured harebell, like thy veins; no, nor
The leaf of eglantine, whom not to slander,
Out-sweeten’d not thy breath: the ruddock would,
With charitable bill, O bill, sore-shaming
Those rich-left heirs that let their fathers lie
Without a monument! bring thee all this;
Yea, and furr’d moss besides, when flowers are none,
To winter-ground thy corse.”
Allusions to the custom are frequently to be met with in our old writers, many of which have been collected together by Brand. In former years it was customary to carry sprigs of rosemary at a funeral, probably because this plant was considered emblematical of remembrance:–
“To show their love, the neighbours far and near,
Follow’d with wistful look the damsel’s bier;
Spring’d rosemary the lads and lasses bore,
While dismally the parson walked before.”
Gay speaks of the flowers scattered on graves as “rosemary, daisy, butter’d flower, and endive blue,” and Pepys mentions a churchyard near Southampton where the graves were sown with sage. Another plant which has from a remote period been associated with death is the cypress, having been planted by the ancients round their graves. In our own country it was employed as a funeral flower, and Coles thus refers to it, together with the rosemary and bay:–
“Cypresse garlands are of great account at funerals amongst the
gentler sort, but rosemary and bayes are used by the
commons both at funerals and weddings. They are
all plants which fade not a good while after they are
gathered, and used (as I conceive) to intimate unto us
that the remembrance of the present solemnity might
not die presently (at once), but be kept in mind for
The yew has from time immemorial been planted in churchyards besides being used at funerals. Paris, in “Romeo and Juliet”, (Act v. sc. 3), says:–
“Under yon yew trees lay thee all along,
Holding thine ear close to the hollow ground;
So shall no foot upon the churchyard tread,
Being loose, unfirm, with digging up of graves,
But thou shall hear it.”
Shakespeare also refers to the custom of sticking yew in the shroud in the following song in “Twelfth Night” (Act ii. sc. 4):–
“My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
Oh, prepare it;
My part of death, no one so true
Did share it.”
Unhappy lovers had garlands of willow, yew, and rosemary laid on their biers, an allusion to which occurs in the “Maid’s Tragedy”:–
“Lay a garland on my hearse
Of the dismal yew;
Maidens, willow branches bear–
Say I died true.
My love was false, but I was firm
From my hour of birth;
Upon my buried body lie
Lightly, gentle earth.”
Among further funeral customs may be mentioned that of carrying a garland of flowers and sweet herbs before a maiden’s coffin, and afterwards suspending it in the church. Nichols, in his “History of Lancashire” (vol. ii. pt. i. 382), speaking of Waltham in Framland Hundred, says: “In this church under every arch a garland is suspended, one of which is customarily placed there whenever any young unmarried woman dies.” It is to this custom Gay feelingly alludes:–
“To her sweet mem’ry flowing garlands strung,
On her now empty seat aloft were hung.”
Indeed, in all the ceremonial observances of life, from the cradle to the grave, flowers have formed a prominent feature, the symbolical meaning long attached to them explaining their selection on different occasions.
1. See “Flower-lore,” p. 147.
2. “The Ceremonial Use of Flowers.”
3. _Fraser’s Magazine_, 1870, p. 711.
4. “Flower-lore,” pp. 149-50.
5. Miss Lambert, _Nineteenth Century_, May 1880, p. 821.
6. _Nineteenth Century_, September 1878, p. 473.
7. “Popular Antiquities,” 1870, ii. 24, &c.