The Isis Rose

Am I the ancient one?


Isis, Rose of the World
Isis, Rosa Mundi

Linda Iles, ArchDrs., Prs.H., GDC, SA

Part I. Isis and the Rose in the Ancient World

“…Behold, she is like Sothis …” Papyrus Chester Beatty 31, “The Stroll,” New Kingdom

Of all the flowers, the rose is a singular example of a natural form that has been included in the symbolism of many cultures, spiritual traditions and folklore throughout the centuries. This flower has been intricately connected to our ideas of love and beauty and as such has enjoyed an association with several Goddesses, among them are Inanna, Ishtar, Aphrodite, Venus, Lakshmi, Chloris, Cybele, Flora, Demeter, Astarte, Aurora, and Hecate. The rose also has associations with a few Gods, Cupid, Dionysius, Eros, Mars and Bacchus.

There is one other Deity who came to have a deep connection to the symbolism of the rose, and that is the Goddess Isis. Many of the Gods and Goddesses mentioned above came to have an association with Her eventually, as Her worship spread throughout the Mediterranean region and the Roman empire. In Her role as She of Ten Thousand Names, Isis was corresponded to many other Goddesses, taking on their attributes, both in and outside of Egypt. By the Greco-Roman period, when the rose had become a popular addition to religious festivals and secular feasts of the Romans and the Greeks, this flower had become intricately associated with Isis, and the association would only deepen over time.

In Sumeria, Babylon and Assyria

“A rose, bent by the wind and pricked by thorns, yet has its heart turned upwards” – Huna of Babylon

The oldest known use of a rose as the basis for a stylized design come from Sumeria. One is a Sumerian seal showing two scorpions protecting the rosette of the Goddess Inanna, dating to the Early Bronze Age or Uruk period, circa 3300 BC. The rosette was a sacred symbol of this Goddess. Seals dating to Early Dynastic I (2900-2800 BC) in the Sumerian city of Ur, combined the rosette symbol of Inanna with those of several other cities of the period. Scholars believe these were originally used for the purpose of sealing store room doors to preserve the materials and contributions made to the great temple of Inanna.

Roses were included in the Hanging Gardens of King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Historians record that the gardens were built by Nebuchadnezzar for one of his wives, Amyitis. Part of the gardens are believed to have been located near the Gate of Ishtar.

The earliest known written reference to roses exists on clay tablets from the royal library at Nineveh (modern day Mosul) of King Ashurbanipal. They contain the word “amurdinnu” or “murdinnu” which scholars believe refers to the ‘bramble rose’ or ‘wild rose’. Use of this word has also been cited in the Epic of Gilgamesh (Kuyundjik Tablet 2252). The Epic of Gilgamesh (also referred to as the Epic of Ishtar and Gilgamesh) as translated by Hamilton (1901) contains the following passage:

” … Oh, could we hear those whispering roses sweet,
Three beauties bending till their petals meet,
And blushing, mingling their sweet fragrance there
In language yet unknown to mortal ear …”

The author and scholar Joseph Campbell, along with many others, has pointed out the strong parallels between the myths of Inanna, Ishtar and Isis. Their consorts have been equated with the cycles of vegetation. All three of these Goddesses held the title “Queen of Heaven”, they were associated with love, loss, death and eventual restoration. Their stories echo a cycle of love, loss and rebirth that has been intimately connected to the symbolism of the rose.

In Crete

“Each common bush shall Syrian roses wear.” – Virgil, “The Eclogues,” IV, (Dryden translation)

Isis certainly had a presence in Crete by the Greco-Roman period. A sanctuary of Isis and Serapis existed near the city of Gortyna in southern central Crete. Gortyna was a major Roman settlement and the chief city of Crete during this time period. A life sized statue of Isis found in Crete is now in the Herakleion Museum (item no. 314). Evidence for an earlier presence may be indicated by a passage from “The Transformations of Lucius, Otherwise Known as the Golden Ass,” by Lucius Apuleius. In it the Goddess Isis speaks these words: “… for the archers of Crete I am Dictynna …”. Dictynna is an ancient Goddess of Cretan origin, who had many attributes. She is considered to be Patroness of Fisherman, Lawgiver, and possibly the Minoan Mother Goddess, whose sanctuaries were believed to be situated on mountaintops.

Diodorus Siculus wrote that the Cretans originally received their mysteries from Egypt. He equates the mysteries of Isis with those of Demeter and the mysteries of Osiris with those of Dionysus. Crete, due to it’s geographic location in the Mediterranean, would surely have had contact with both the Egyptians and the Greeks, and other seafaring peoples, from an early period.

The oldest known visual evidence of roses is preserved in a fresco from the palace of Knossos on Crete. This piece of art dates from around 1600 BC. The fresco was partially destroyed during the earthquake of 1500 BC which brought down the palace. Portions of the fresco, though broken, vividly depict animals and flowers – among them are several examples of roses.

Roses may have originally been introduced to Syria and Palestine from northern Persia (modern day Iran), and later introduced from these regions into Greece, Italy and eventually into Egypt. Scholars believe the roses of Knossos may have been brought to Crete through trade with Syria. Whatever the route taken by the rose, the worship of Isis spread throughout the same region in much the same manner, if by a slightly different route. Barbara Watterson writes in her book “The Gods of Ancient Egypt” that the worship of Isis spread from dynastic Egypt “northwards to Phoenicia, Syria and Palestine; to Asia Minor; to Cyprus, Rhodes, Crete, Samos and other islands in the Aegean.” Perhaps it was the ancient Syrian roses of Crete that were first introduced into the worship and temples of Isis in Egypt.

In Egypt

“The buds from Hatti are ripe … all the meadow blossoms with burgeoning buds.” – Cairo Love Song 21e, “Seven Wishes”, New Kingdom

In Egypt during the Greco-Roman period, wall paintings within Egyptian tombs included roses as a part of their subject matter, objects were decorated with rose motifs, and roses were used in funerary wreaths. Attar of roses was one of the oils used in the later periods during mummification. Roses and rose oil were used in ancient Egyptian medicine. Private and temple gardens included roses in their flower beds.

Hair ornaments of Senebtisy in the form of gold rosettes, 12th Dynasty

Evidence of two types of roses used in pharaonic Egypt have survived. One is the “Rosa Gallica” which was widely cultivated in parts of Europe, in Rome and Greece, and still survives today. The other is “Rosa Ricardii”, which became extinct in Egypt by Islamic times. It was “Rosa Ricardii” also known as “Rosa Sancta” that was identified as the type of rose included in the funerary wreaths found in tombs of Hawara by Egyptologist William M. Flinders Petrie in the later part of the nineteenth century. These wreaths have been dated to 170 AD.

Some recipes for Kyphi, an incense used in ancient Egyptian temples called for the use of rose oil. The ancient Egyptians believed that perfume exuded from the bodies of their Deities, and that to breathe in the scent of the sacred Kyphi incense brought communication with the divine. It is not surprising then, that from the time of it’s introduction into Egypt (possibly sixth to seventh century BC), the fragrant and beautiful rose became one of the most sought after flowers, eventually associated with Isis, whose popularity and worship became so widespread.

Throughout the classical world, Egypt was renowned for it’s perfumes. One of these was called “Rhodinon” (‘rose perfume’). It is mentioned by Pliny, Theophrastus and Dioscorides. Theophrastus in his work titled “On Odours” writes of this perfume: “… being very delicate and acceptable to the sense of smell, by reason of its lightness it penetrates as no other can …” To better enhance the color to a more rose like hue, alkanet (a plant used to make dye) was sometimes added.

Cleopatra VII of the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt had coinage issued during her reign that titled her “The New Goddess”, identifying her with Isis. She was not the first Ptolemaic Queen to be identified with Isis, but she was certainly the most famous. It may have been her association to Isis that first drew the displeasure of Roman politicians. The Cult of Isis in Rome was very popular during this time period. Cleopatra’s proclamation of herself as the living personification of Isis on earth would not have been recognized in Rome.

She was said to have a passion for roses. Cleopatra regularly enjoyed fountains filled with rosewater at her palace. In “The Deipnosophists” Athenaeus wrote the following about her: “On the fourth day she distributed fees, amounting to a talent, for the purchase of roses, and the floors of the dining-rooms were strewn with them to the depth of a cubit, in net-like festoons spread over all.” Legend has it that she even had the sails of her barge soaked in rosewater. Shakespeare refers to this in “Anthony and Cleopatra:” “Purple the sails, and so perfumed, that the winds were lovesick with them …” This “New Goddess,” has been identified with love, queenship and the rose in art and literature down through the ages.

In Greece

“Venus … anointed him with ambrosial oil of roses …” Homer, “The Iliad,” Book XXIII

The Gnostic Gospels found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt contain a story of the origin of roses which is based on an ancient Greek myth: “But the first Psyche (Soul) loved Eros who was with her, and poured her blood upon him and upon the earth. Then from that blood the rose first sprouted upon the earth out of the thorn bush, for a joy in the light which was to appear in the bramble.” – (Robinson, “The Nag Hammadi Library” pp. 169 – 170)

The ancient Greeks cultivated a form of the Gallica rose. The name ‘rose’ comes from Latin ‘rosa’ which derives from the ancient Greek ‘rhoden’ meaning ‘red’. The rose was eventually brought to southern Italy by Greek colonists. Both the Greeks and the Romans used roses for perfume, medicine, festivals and temple rituals.

The ancient Greeks developed a system of corresponding specific plants and flowers to specific Deities, and then subsequently allocating certain plants and flowers for wreaths, to adorn the statues of Deities and the heads of persons of renown. Followers of Isis used roses in the Greco-Roman period to create ‘Wreaths of Justification’ for the righteous dead, as a sign the deceased had successfully passed through the Judgement Hall of Her husband, Osiris.

It was the poetess Sappho who first named the rose ‘Queen of Flowers’ in her poem “Ode to the Rose.” It became the flower of the Greek Goddess Aphrodite, and in Rome the rose was dedicated to the Goddess Venus. When the worship of Isis spread into Greece and Rome, the rose was considered the most sacred of floral offerings to Her.

A temple dedicated to Isis located near Mikro Elos in Brexiza on the borders of the Marathon and Nea Makri is under excavation. This area is located in Attica in southern Greece. Statues of Osiris and Isis have been recovered from the area, the originals are in the Marathon Museum, copies have been situated on the excavation site for tourists. Since the discovery of the first two Egyptian-style statues on the site in 1968, six statues have been found, including an intact marble sphinx, a gray stone sphinx in two pieces and a portrait of Polydeuces. One of the most striking of these statues depicts Isis holding a rose in each hand.

There were several established centers for the Cult of Isis in ancient Greece, particularly in Attica. One of these was in Athens. Isis was also established just east of Athens in Corinth, in Cenchreae (Kenchreai), Eleusius, Piraeus, and notably on the island of Delos. In Athens, evidence suggests that a Cult of Isis existed during or before the last third of the 4th century BC, officially recognized in the early part of the 2nd century BC and continued to flourish until the 2nd half of the 3rd century AD. The surviving physical evidence amply corresponds Isis with the rose in ancient Greece. Some scholars feel that the rose may have had a deep connection to Demeter and it was through the association of Isis with Demeter that the rose first became corresponded with Isis.

Diodorus Siculus writes an account which may demonstrate how this ancient introduction of Isis of Egypt into the Mysteries of Eleusis and into Attica of Greece first took place: “Erechtheus also, who was by birth an Egyptian, became king of Athens, and in proof of this they offer the following considerations. Once when there was a great drought, as is generally agreed, which extended over practically all the inhabited earth except Egypt because of the peculiar character of that country, and there followed a destruction both of crops and men in great numbers, Erechtheus, through his racial connection with Egypt, brought from there to Athens a great supply of grain, and in return those who had enjoyed this aid made their benefactor king. After he had secured the throne he instituted the initiatory rites of Demeter in Eleusis and established the mysteries, transferring their ritual from Egypt. And the tradition that an advent of the goddess into Attica also took place at that time is reasonable, since it was then that the fruits which are named after her were brought to Athens, and this is why it was thought that the discovery of the seed had been made again, as though Demeter had bestowed the gift … their ancient ceremonies are observed by the Athenians in the same way as by the Egyptians … they are the only Greeks who swear by Isis, and they closely resemble the Egyptians in both their appearance and manners.”

Reliefs from graves dating to this period in Athens and other areas of Attica show women wearing garlands that alternate laurel leaves and roses. They are also represented wearing rose wreaths. A late Hellenistic Hymn from Andros describes “the flower laden locks of Isis”. The women in these reliefs are shown wearing a kind of knotted mantle, whose knot in some depictions closely resembles the open flower of a rose.

The reasons for these women to be depicted wearing roses in a funerary context are known. The exact reason for these women to be dressed in the manner of the Hellenistic Isis is a matter of debate amongst scholars, due to lack of conclusive physical evidence. They suggest that the women could be representative of Isis Herself, priestesses of the Cult of Isis, or women who have been participants in Her worship. Whether as a personification of the Goddess, as Her priestess or as Her devotee, by assuming the dress and bearing the symbols of Isis, these women hoped to be protected by the Goddess in a final act of salvation – life renewed in the Kingdom of Her husband Osiris.

In Rome

“As she talks, her lips breathe spring roses” – Ovid, “Fasti,” Book V: May 2

In the time period when the temple of Isis in Attica was built, the rose was already sacred to Isis in ancient Greece and in Rome. A famous correspondence of the rose with the worship of Isis occurs in passages from “The Transformations of Lucius, Otherwise Known as the Golden Ass,” in which the Goddess Isis appears to Lucius when he has reached a state of total despair. Isis gives him the following instructions on a way to escape his condition: “I shall order the High Priest to carry a garland of roses in my procession, tied to the rattle which he carries in his right hand. Do not hesitate, push the crowd aside, join the procession with confidence in my grace. Then come close up to the High Priest as if you wished to kiss his hand, gently pluck the roses with your mouth and you will immediately slough off the hide …”

Strength – Rider Waite tarot deck

After Lucius was transformed back to his human self, he underwent a period of study and training within the temple of Isis and became an initiate of Her Mysteries. The act of eating the roses in this novel is symbolic, of taking on and absorbing the mysteries of Isis into his person. Leaving behind the dross side of his nature and becoming aware, attuned to his higher self. (Note: interesting that the Strength card of the tarot, shows a woman gentling a raging lion, and she is crowned with roses and wearing a trailing garland of roses at her waist.)

This novel was written during a time period when the demand for roses throughout the Roman Empire had been very high, turning the growing of roses into an important industry. The type of rose that has come down to us from the flower breeders of ancient Greece and Rome is called the “Gallica”. When Classical writers referred to the rose (rosa) they meant the Gallica, the wildrose or briar rose was termed Cynorrodon, the Dog Rose.

Statue of a woman with draped hands, 2nd century BC. Found in the Villa Adriana, Tivoli

Objects sacred to the worship of Isis, such as the urnula, the type of pitcher used for Isian and Osirian mysteries in Her temples, were held by the draped hands of the priestesses. Often these objects were adorned with roses. Wreaths and garlands of roses were placed within the temple. So synonymous did the rose become with the Goddess Isis as Healer and Protector to the people of Rome, rose amulets were worn in Her Name as protection against the evil eye.

It was through Horus, son of Isis and Osiris, that we find the origin of the term ‘sub rosa’. Horus was incorporated into the cult of Isis and Serapis which flourished in Greco-Roman Alexandria in particular, and in Rome, where he became known by the Greek version of his name, ‘Harpocrates’. The ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic sign used for a child was a seated boy with his fingers to his mouth, actually in the pose of a young child about to suck his finger, a way of designating extreme youth. This pose was interpreted by the Greeks as a sign of silence and secrecy. By the time of Caligula in the first century AD, Horus had reached a great height of popularity among the Romans. A story circulating at that time told of Cupid, son of Venus, who gave a rose to Horus/Harpocrates. The rose was a gratuity for the silence of Harpocrates about the affairs of Cupid’s mother. Through this story, the rose became the symbol of keeping a confidence. The practice of hanging a rose hung from the ceiling served as a reminder that anything said in the room was to be considered ’sub rosa’ (under the rose) and therefore completely private.

Isidis Navigium and the Star of the Sea

“Rose of all Roses, Rose of all the World” – W.B. Yeats, “The Rose of Battle”

During the Greco-Roman period, Isis was patroness of sailors and ships. The Romans credited Her as the inventor of the sail. One of Her many titles, Isis Pharia, grew from this patronage. As the protectress Deity of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Pharos lighthouse of Alexandria, She guided ships to safe harbor. The use of female figureheads on the prows of ships is thought to derive from this ancient association of Isis as Protectress of mariners.

A famous Isian festival in the classical period was the Isidis Navigium (known as the Ploiaphesia in ancient Greece). It was celebrated in the ports of ancient Greece near Corinth, Cenchreae and Piraeus, the harbors of Rome, the shores of Greco-Roman Egypt and to far reaches of the Roman Empire, where it was held on the Seine. Imagery of the Navigium was incorporated into the Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris. Robert Eisler writes in “The Royal Art of Astrology” of the main porch of the cathedral which contains a depiction of the Zodiac: “Still further left (i.e. of January) Aquarius and Isis launching a ship. The ship is Navis seen just opposite Aquarius. Over this figure we see Pisces.” The Isidis Navigium is still celebrated today by Fellowship of Isis members in California and in London.

Traditionally the Isidis Navigium is celebrated on March 5th. Apuleius writes in his work “The Transformations of Lucius, Otherwise Known as the Golden Ass,” these words of the Goddess Isis: “Devote to my worship the day born of this night … for at this season, the storms of winter lose their force, the leaping waves subside and the sea becomes navigable once more.” Participants in the festival were known to carry garlands and bouquets of flowers and to sprinkle the ground with perfumed oils. Among the flowers used were roses.

Isis was titled “Star of the Sea” (Stella Maris) by this period, the star in question being the North Star, which was used by sailors to guide their vessels at night. When ancient mariners followed the light of Stella Maris, they knew they were on the right path, steering true. The petals of the sacred rose of Isis, Patroness of sailors and ships, may have lent their name to other means of steering sailors safely through the seas. In the classical period, before the use of the Compass Rose, which dates to around the 13th century on charts and maps, mariners used the Wind Rose. The names of the eight winds were used instead of names of directions on these charts.

There is a Tower of Winds in Athens, built around 100 BC, which is still standing today. Inscribed in the stone walls of this tower are the names of the eight winds. This edifice may have been employed as an observation tower, it did serve as a clock tower with a water clock, or clepsydra, a time keeping device that was used in ancient Egypt, especially in the temples. (The water clock is not the same thing as a Nilometer which was also used in ancient Egyptian temples to gauge the level of the Nile River.) The oldest known example of a clepsydra in Egypt dates to 1400 BC. Archimedes is credited with learning the technology of the water clock in the city of Alexandria in Egypt and bringing it to Athens.

Rosaliae Signorum, the Rhodophoria and the Rosalia in ancient Rome

“…canerem biferique rosaria” – Virgil, “The Georgics”, Book IV
“… roses bloom and fade and bloom again …”

As the popularity and influence of the goddess Isis grew in ancient Rome, so did the number of her festivals, which were called “Isia”. Isis was many things to the ancient Romans. She was Patroness of women, in all aspects of their lives, love, marriage and childbirth. Isis was also the Patroness of Victory, adopted by the Roman legions as their particular Patroness. According to their “Feriale Duranum” (Timetable of Festivals) the Roman armies celebrated the “Rosaliae Signorum”, probably in the month of May. During this festival the standards of the Auxila and all the legions were crowned with wreaths of roses in front of the garrison which was assembled in the courtyard of the principia (military headquarters) before being paraded though the camp and throughout the city. This ancient religious observance was also accompanied by a civil festival and carnival atmosphere, with rose petals strewn in the streets as the standard was carried though the city, especially within the Roman capital. It may have been held, in part, to honor the military dead.

The standards of the Roman legions served as the embodiment of the fortune or prowess of each military unit. They were actually cult symbols. Tertullian, an early Roman Christian author, stated that the soldiers venerated their standards above all gods. Each permanent military unit and legion had a shrine, which was placed under the care of the one of their own, who was titled First Cohort. This shrine contained statues of deities and of the emperor as well as depictions of the standard of the respective military unit or legion, in miniature. Within an established fortress, military standards were kept in a shrine in the principia. The belief in the potency of a standard was so strong that if it were lost during battle, the respective unit might be disbanded.

The “Rhodophoria”, a festival of roses, was held in honor of Isis throughout the Roman Empire. The name of the festival Rhodophoria comes from rhod or rhodo derived from the Greek rhodon meaning ‘rose’. The second half of the name drives from Latin phore or phorus derived from the Greek, phoros, phoror and pherein meaning ‘to carry’, or ‘to bear’, or ‘the carrier’. In the time of the classical Roman poet Virgil (70 BC to 19 BC) the Rhodophoria was an important festival of the Hellenistic Isis, who was closely identified with Demeter. It involved the wearing or carrying of roses by the general populace, especially women, rather than adorning military standards.

Roman mention of a Rhodophoria from classical times, is found in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri LII 3694 of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The entry, which is titled “Invitation to a Strategus” , has the following text: “To Aurelius Harpocration, Strategus, from the inhabitants and notables of the village of Seryphis. The great god Ammon, who loves you, invites you on the 16th of the present month Phamenoth on the occasion of a festival and a Rhodophoria.”

The “Rosalia”, another festival of roses is linked to the “Rosaliae Signorum”, although this festival was conducted for civilians. Ancient Romans used roses at funerary services and garlanded their family tombs with wreaths of roses. During the Rosalia, rose buds and rose hips were offered to the departed during the rites. At the prime of it’s fragrant beauty, the rose symbolized life, when the blossoms withered, the rose was a symbol of death. By returning every year to bloom again, the rose was a symbol of eternal or ever renewing life.

Roses for the Isian Garden Today

“… what careful husbandry makes the trim garden smile …” Virgil, “The Georgics,” Book IV

One of the loveliest ways to bring a bit of history and a feeling of the Goddess into one’s living area is through the garden. This idea was first impressed upon me when reading deTraci Regula’s book “Mysteries of Isis”. To this end, there are some varieties of rose existing today that have a definite Isian connection.

“Belle Isis” and “Rosa Mundi” listed below, are both Gallica roses. Gallica roses flower once in the summer over low shrubs rarely over four feet tall. They are among the oldest of the cultivated roses. Their blossoms usually come in shades ranging from red to deep purplish crimson, with the exception of “Belle Isis” and some of the newer varieties which can be lighter in color, in some cases with lighter stripes of pink and/or white on the petals, depending on the variety.

Belle Isis (1845) Breeder: Parmentier. Country of Origin: France. Type: Gallica. The Greeks and Romans grew gallica roses. Later, the French and the Dutch loved to breed them. The flowers are a delicate warm pink with a Myrrh like fragrance.

Cleopatra (2006) Breeder: Kordes. Country of Origin: UK Type: Korverpea, bred from unnamed seedling. Flowers are a blending of red and mauve, with medium fragrance.

Rosa Mundi (recorded as far back as the fifteenth century) Type: Gallica. The color is pale pink to white with deep Rose-pink stripes overlaid. Its fragrance has been described as quite intense to moderately strong.

A climbing rose, with an Isian connection!

Bridge of Sighs™ (2000) Breeder: Harkness. Country of Origin: UK. Type: Climbing Rose. A new climbing rose takes its name from a bridge which spans The Isis, a branch of the River Thames. The flowers are golden amber and exude a light scent.

About Royal Rosamond Press

I am an artist, a writer, and a theologian.
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1 Response to The Isis Rose

  1. Reblogged this on rosamondpress and commented:

    I saw the future that has arrived. God gathers His own!

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