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
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
"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
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.
retiring flower, hidden from the eye!
as a star, when only one
shining in the sky.