Today’s post is excerpted from Barbara G. Walker’s books The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects and The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets.
Kissing seems to have begun in southeastern Asia, where the Sanskrit term was cusati, “he sucks,” derived from mothers’ habit of premasticating food and feeding it to their babies mouth-to-mouth. Adult kissing evolved with the Tantric theory that men required female juices in order to retain their vitality. The Chinese version, Tao, called women’s saliva, “a great medicine,” along with the other two divine yin juices, breast milk and menstrual blood. The curative power of female saliva was cited on an Assyrian clay tablet: diseases of the eye could be cured by the saliva and milk of a temple harlot. Both Mohammed and Jesus copied this female magic by curing the blind with saliva (Mark 8:23). European pagan heroes sometimes did the same, so that the church fathers had to claim that this was a special talent of the Antichrist. Pagan Romans believe blindness could be cured by the saliva of a mother of sons – a belief still prevalent among Italian peasants in the nineteenth century.
Early Christians practiced the “kiss of peace” between men, yet they still had recourse to female symbolism. They claimed that men could impregnate one another (spiritually) by kissing: “For it is by a kiss that the perfect conceive and give birth…we receive conception from the grace that is in each other.”
The plump little infant “cupids” or putti so popular in Renaissance art were a far cry from the original Latin cupido meaning “lust, greedy desire” – from which we derive cupidity. This was a Latin name for the Greek Eros, who also represented lustful desire: that is, the erotic spirit behind all sexual union and hence behind the impulse of life itself. This was once a holy concept, until ascetic patriarchy declared it a devilish one. Another name for Cupid was Amor, “Love.” His arrows were supposed to prick the heart with passionate affection. He usually accompanied his mother Venus (Greek Aphrodite). The Renaissance painters liked to multiply him into a host of chubby little angels surrounding almost any female figure, especially a naked one, or any representation of sexual union, such as a wedding.
Thanks to a confusion of these cupid figures with baby angels, they were also called “cherubs,” which is derived from the Hebrew kerubh, Sheban karribim, former guardians of the shrine of the Moon-goddess at Marib. But, the ancient talismans of Cupid were not babies; they were winged phalli of bronze, ivory, or wood, which gave rise to an Italian slang term for penis, uccello, “little bird.”
No flower, with the possible exception of the lotus, has borne so many connotations and interpretations as the rose. Throughout the Orient, the “Flower of the Goddess” was the red China rose, or scarlet hibiscus, five-petaled like the classical rose, before modern multipetaled varieties were created by selective breeding. Like the five-petaled apple blossom and the five lobed apple, the rose formed a natural pentacle. Like the apple and its pentacle, the rose was sacred to the Goddess everywhere. Romans knew it as the Flower of Venus, worn as a badge of office by her prostitute-priestesses. When the Great Mother of the Gods (Cybele) passed in solemn procession through Roman streets, her image was showered with “a snow of roses.” Gnostic scriptures said the first rose sprouted from the menarchal blood of Psyche, the virgin Soul, when she became enamored of Eros, symbol of sexuality.
Arab mystics spoke of a paradise called Gulistan, the Rose Garden, perhaps derived from the ancient Babylonian Goddess Gula. Like the magic garden of the Fairy Queen, paradise centered on “the rose of love.” The same word was applied to female genitals. Arab poets spoke coyly fo the attraction of the female-genital rose and the secrets connected with it: “I think of nothing but the Rose; I wish nothing but the ruby Rose.” French troubadours adopted the same symbolism, which was embodied in their love poetry. To this day, la rose is a common French metaphor of “maidenhead.”
Just as the rosary – or “rose-wreath” – was adopted from the Middle East for application to the Christian version of the Virgin Goddess, so the rose also was declared proper to the worship of Mary, despite its earlier, blatantly sexual symbolism. Rose windows in the western, “female” façade of the cathedral usually featured Mary in the center. Church authorities claimed that Mary’s immaculate conception was brought about through the magic of a rose: Mary’s mother Anne (or Hana) conceived her daughter while smelling a rose. Like Aphrodite before her, Mary was addressed as the Holy Rose, Rose Garden, Rose Bush, Rose Garland, Mystic Rose, or Wreath of Roses. The similarly five-petaled apple blossom belonged to Eve; the rose to Mary who was called her reincarnation, “the second Eve.” Rose and apple were likewise merged in the Oriental symbol of the paradise island, Land of the Rose-Apple Tree.
Despite the abundant female symbolism of the rose, some medieval mystics insisted on identifying the red rose with Christ. Albertus Magnus wrote of “the rose made red by the blood of Christ in his passion,” recalling the Syrian anemone made red by the blood of Adonis. Yet other writers remembered the old female symbolism and wrote verses with obvious double meaning:
When I dislodged the bud, a little seed
I spilled just in the center, as I spread
The petals to admire their loveliness
Searching the calyx to its inmost
Roses of various kinds also became mystic symbols of alchemy and hermetic lore. The blue rose stood for impossibility. The golden rose mean absolute achievement, or perfection. A seven-petaled rose means seven days of the week, seven planets, and seven degrees of enlightenment. Like the eight-petaled lotus of the Goddess Kali, the eight-petaled rose signified regeneration.