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The Garden Gate: Flowers play a big role in religious symbolism

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

Some flowers have a special history and significance in religion.

The lily, for instance, in Christian symbolism represents purity. It is the symbol of Easter and the Resurrection.

It is also the symbol of Mary. During the Middle Ages, paintings of the Virgin Mary always included a vase of lilies.

The lily was the symbol of Britomartis, the Great Mother, in the prehistoric Minoan period of Crete (about 3000 B.C.). In ancient Greece, it was the flower of Hera, goddess of the moon, earth, air, marriage, women’s life and childbirth. Ancient Romans had the lily as the emblem of Juno, goddess of light, sky, marriage and motherhood.

Right now, Christian churches are lavishly adorned with lilies for this important religious day of rejoicing.

Arranging flowers for a church is a specialized art. Many things must be taken into consideration. Arrangements must be viewed from a distance or, in some instances, hold their own in front of an intricate carved altar or background of stained glass.

The arrangement must not be lost in a large space dominated by shadowy arches and distances. It must indicate the appropriate occasion in the church calendar, and it must emphasize and enhance the spiritual quality of the time and place — a large order, indeed.

Floral arrangements must be carefully planned, like the music provided by the choir, the organ and other instruments. Flowers, like the music, are one part of an all-around effect and must complement and support the service.

The practice of placing groupings of flowers in temples began in the 6th century with the Chinese Buddhists. Flowers have been important symbols of worship for many centuries in all the religions of the world.

Long before the Christian era, flowers were used as a part of worship. Festivals of ancient gods were always marked by the strewing of petals and flowers, and the adorning of statues with wreaths. Sweet herbs and rushes were strewn on the floors of churches in medieval Europe. Even after the Reformation, when much of the imagery and symbolism was stripped from the church, flowers were allowed to remain.

The lotus is one of the most ancient flowers with religious significance. This tropical water lily has been held sacred in the Near and Far East since the beginning of many religious beliefs. It has an uninterrupted symbolic history of more than 5,000 years.

The Egyptian lotus was dedicated to Horus, god of the son. It was the symbol of fertility and of the life-giving Nile. It was also the symbol of resurrection, because it closed its petals at night and sank to the bottom but rose again to the water’s surface and reopened in the morning.

The lotus was long venerated in Assyria and Greece, where it was used in architectural ornamentation. It was the symbol of light in Persia and the emblem of mystery in Nepal, Tatary and Tibet.

It is revered by all Hindus. The tradition is that Brahma was born from a lotus flower. It’s the symbol of Buddha in India.

The eight-petaled lotus is the emblem of the past, present and future in both China and Japan because it has bud, blossoms and seed pods all at the same time.

Myrtle was one of the plants sacred to all people of the ancient Eastern Mediterranean area. The ancient Hebrews revered it and covered the tent of the tabernacle with blooming boughs. The Egyptians used it to symbolize Hathor, goddess of love and joy. In Greece and Rome, it was sacred to Aphrodite and Venus, the goddesses of love.

Myrtle was the symbol of love and marriage, and Roman brides to this day wear myrtle on their wedding days.

When the Jesuits arrived in South America in the 16th century, they were amazed to find a blooming vine which they believed to be the same flower seen growing on the cross in one of St. Francis of Assisi’s visions. They named it the passion flower. The various parts of the flower are supposed to represent the symbols and instruments of Christ’s Passion.

Francisco Pizzarro found the Inca Indians growing giant sunflowers when he arrived in Peru in 1632. The Incas venerated these as images of their sun god. Sunflower seeds were sacred food — and they still are in many Southwest Indian tribes.

It would seem, indeed, that flowers have always played an  important part in worship services and ceremonial occasions, especially joyful ones like weddings — and in churches, temples, synagogues and places of worship throughout the world. They still do so just as much today.

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.