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Violet Traditions
Footnotes to the Violet

By John Reismiller

Violets, although without an extensive and detailed written history, have made their appearance in the myths, paintings and literature of the past.  They appear in the rites and rituals of the ancient East and in the classical world.  Their significance varies, but usually they have been associated with the resurrection of the seasonally dying Earth god, Attis, who, according to one legend, mutilated himself under a pine tree and died from the flow of blood from his open wounds.  According to a practice originating in antiquity, during the spring equinox, a pine tree was felled in the woods and brought into the sanctuary of the earth-mother goddess, Cybele, where it was venerated as a deity.  It was wrapped in swaths of wool and garlanded with violets because of the belief that these flowers had appeared from the blood of Attis as it spilled on the ground from his self-inflicted wounds.  (A similar legend has it that when the Greek Ajax slew himself in shame over a cowardly act he had committed against his allies, violets -- some claim hyacinths --- sprung up from the spot where his blood dripped on the earth.)

            The Greek dramatist, Aristophanes, referred to Athens in one of his plays as the violet-crowned city because the name of the king who was crowned there (Ion) and the flower (ion=violet) were the same.  The English historian Macaulay used the same epithet for that ancient city when wrote of it and it has been emblematic of it ever since.

            In the language of flowers, it has had various symbolic meanings.  Its color may indicate the love of truth or, conversely, the truth of love.  In keeping with the latter, it is said that the tomb of the Roman tyrant Nero was decorated in the spring with violets by unknown persons who had secretly admired or loved him.

            Violets were often used as symbols of fasting or mourning.  The poet Shelly uses the flower to commemorate the grief of a lost love in the poem "On a Faded Violet."

The odour from the flower is gone

Which like thy kisses breathed on me;

The colour from the flower is flown

Which glowed of thee and only thee.

A shrivelled, lifeless, vacant form,

It lies on my abandoned breast,

And mocks the heart which yet is warm,

I weep--my tears revive it not!

I sigh--it breathes no more on me;

Its mute and uncomplaining lot

Is such as mine should be.

Violets have made their appearance in literature and painting as symbolic of human emotions.  In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Ophelia, upon learning of the death of her father, Polonius, speaks to the queen in the language of the flowers, a convention much observed in the 16th century.  Her allusions are to the tragic event which has taken place and the emotions and attributes which are symbolized by certain flowers: rosemary for remembrance; pansies (of the violet family) for love; fennel for flattery; columbine for ingratitude; rue for repentance; daisies for faithlessness; and violets for constancy or devotion.  In act IV, scene 5, she sings distraughtly while in the company of the queen,

I would give some violets, but they withered all when my father died: they say he made a good end.

In The Death of Ophelia by the English painter John Millet, her lifeless body is borne down the stream amidst the drifting flowers that surround her.  The violet is present among them.  In Millet's 19th century, people were still familiar with the language of flowers and the violet was included in the scene since it w as emblematic at that time of death at an early age.

            Violets may be said to have helped, in their small way, the bands of invading Tartars as they moved across the steppes of central Russia.  Because they were always on the move, they were often forced to live off the land.  An account by the 17th century Russian traveler Gmelin, who was the first to travel as far as Siberia, informs us that, among other tubers found in the ground, the Tartars ate the roots of violets which were cooked down into a thick and mucilaginous soup which aided in keeping their stomachs full as they migrated westward.

            The monks of the Middle Ages called the little pansy, Viola tricolor, the Herb of the Trinity (Herba Trinitatus) and used it to make a type of cordial because of its sweet scent.  And the leaves of the sweet violet, Viola Odorata, have been valued from antiquity.  The medieval herbalists considered them as having antiseptic properties and credited an infusion of them as an embrocation for soothing pain and, in some cases, of even halting the growth of malignant tumors.  Centuries earlier, the ancient Roman naturalist writer Pliny had described the curative properties of such violets, often prescribing them for gout and spleen disorders.

            In modern times, a story has grown up around Napoleon Bonaparte and the violet.  While in exile on the island of Elba, he supposedly confided to his friends that he would return to France with the appearance of the violets in the spring.  (Such flowers may have had a special significance for the deposed Emperor, since he had once used them as an amorous emblem of his love for Josephine.)  His partisans rallied around the symbol of his triumphant return and secretly referred to him as Corporal violet.  To determine a loyal supporter, the question was asked of a stranger: --Do you like violets?  If the reply to the query was Yes (Oui) or No (Non), it revealed one who did not know of the plot.  If the answer was --'Eh bien'--, the loyalty of the person to the case was affirmed.

            According to Bullfinch's Mythology, the daughter of Demeter, the Earth Mother, was playing with her companions, gathering lilies and violets, and filling her basket and her apron with them, when Pluto saw her, loved her, and carried her off to live with him in the underworld.  A similar English myth about the change of seasons had the violet playing the central role in the return of the captive bride to the earth again in the spring:

"King Frost felt lonely in his huge ice palace where everything was frozen and lifeless.  He thereupon sent his courtiers out to look for a lovely girl to melt his heart and bring him happiness.  The courtiers found many beautiful women, but they, too, were cold and icy in their appearance and demeanor.  The search continued until a very shy maiden named Violet was found and presented to the king.  He immediately came under the spell of her charm and sweetness and fell deeply in love with her.  Although once a strict and passionless monarch, he slowly became gentle and warmhearted and vowed to his people that the harsh and endless winters of his realm would become milder for one half of each year.  Such was the tender effect that Violet had upon her lord and husband.  But Violet pleaded with the king to allow her to see her people again.  Because of his love for her, he granted her wish to visit them each spring.  His only condition was that she could only return to them in the form of a flower for part of the year, coming back to her husband's icy realm each winter."

And so the violet has played its small role in history and legend.  Few flowers who, in Longfellow's words "…lurk among all the lovely children of the shade," have been so symbolic of the awakening year, earth's renewal, hope and the simple joys and sorrows of love.  The Violet has always flourished along untrodden ways in folklore and the annals of the past.

A retiring flower, hidden from the eye!

Fair as a star, when only one

Is shining in the sky.

© John Reismiller  January 2000
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