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Flower’s folklore, symbolism, legends and myths; flowers in arts and literature

Posted on 20 June 2013

Van Goth Sunflowers, Still life

 Much has been written, painted, mystified about flowers since human evolution. While man lived out in the open he was surrounded by flowers, plants and trees appealing to his five senses: to his sight, touch, taste, smell and even to his hearing; Man became attached to these gracious creatures, providers of food and shelter and pleasing impressions. Flowers were the first decorative implement for the earliest attempts of men to adorn themselves. Through out human history, flowers, plants and trees developed into symbols of expressions, of reverence and inspiration differently articulated according to time and cultural standings.
Egyptians reverenced the lotus flower as a symbol of ‘creation and resurrection’, while for Buddhist it represented ‘Heaven’ and in china it was synonym of “perfection and purity”.
Flowers and gardens have inspired artists for centuries. Still life painters used flowers as one of the most depicted inanimate subject matter. Impressionist a while later like Van Gogh who was mainly obsessed about sunflowers and irises for the most part. Monet’s gardens full of asters, chrysanthemums, roses and poppies and his perseverance upon water lilies. Renoir painted paradisiacal terraces and art students and apprentices have been taught to paint and draw using flowers in their still-life portraits. The beauty of flowers is inspiring to even the coldest of hearts.
In literature, Shakespeare had a garden of his own for he named them one by one as he needed to express his characters’ emotions, it is said he invented more than a hundred names for flowers while some are still trying to figure them out. Virginia Wolf, Oscar Wilde, Dulce Maria Loynaz, just to name a few, the list is vast and it is, indeed, the rendering of this section, a contemplation upon flowers, through all forms of expressions.
On today’s topic, SUNFLOWERS are the subject of the matter for I’m bias as Vincent Van Gough who considered it to be symbol of light, renewal and health; it is one of my favorite flowers for they stand tall on the heights with the biggest smile on their faces as its creator call upon the glory of the first light, day over day….night after night.

Greek mythology explains the first appearance of the sunflower. A water nymph named Clytie was enamored of the sun god Apollo, whom she had seen one day on a visit to Mt. Olympus. Every day she pined for him as she watched him move across the sky, but her affection was spurned and unreturned because of Apollo was interested in Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. Hopeless, Clytie took not drink or food. After nine days the gods took pity on her and changed her into a flower whose face would daily follow the course of the sun across the heavens. (It is believed that it refers to an earlier version of helianthus since they first were discovered in America)
The origins of the botanical name ‘Helianthus’ from the Greek words Helios, for sun, and anthus, for flower. The name might arise from the heliotropic behavioral of the plant, which causes it to orient its flowers to the sun as the light moves across the sky.
When Francisco Pizarro in the mid 1500s fought his way into Peru, he found there the giant sunflower (helianthus annuus), venerated by the Indians of the Inca empire as the sacred image of their sun-god. Incan priestesses, the maidens of the sun, wore on their breasts large sunflowers disks made of virgin gold. Theses disks became the most highly treasured spoils of the Spanish conquerors.
Sunflower seeds were also sacred food to the plain Indians of the prairie regions of North America. They placed ceremonial bowls filled with sunflower seeds on the graves of their dead for food to sustain them on their long and dangerous journey to their happy hunting grounds.
At the temple of the sun, honored rulers and sacrificial virgins were crowned with representations of sunflowers made of pure gold. Incas reproduced the sunflowers in various art forms, such as, pottery and jewelry making.
The Spanish Conqueror Hernan Cortes, carried the helianthus from Central America to Europe in the 1500s, leading to its use in European religious symbolism. The old English church recommended decorating with the sunflower on St. Bartholomew’s day, August 24th, for it represented constancy and devotion, symbolism that was retained in the Victorian language of flowers.
In ancient Chinese cultures, the sunflowers were a sign of longevity and its seeds were the food of immortality.
In Poetry: -“Ah! Sunflower,” William Blake saw the plant as a kind of clock.
Ah! Sunflower! Weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun;
Seeking after that sweet golden clime,
Where the traveller’s journey is done.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his “Sunflower”, implored the bloom not to be so constant:
Light-enchanted flower! Thou
Who gazest ever true and tender
On the sun’s revolving splendor,
Follow not his faithless glance
With thy faded countenance.

In a gloomy poem titled “song”, Alfred Lord Tennyson, described the last hours of the day, when evening replaces the light of the sun:
Heavily hangs the broad sunflower
Over its grave i’ the earth so chilly;
Heavily hangs the hollyhock,
Heavily hangs the tiger lily.

In the last decade of the twentieth century, the sunflower is enjoying a sort of helianthus resurrection as Vincent Van Gogh’s images and those of others are widely imprinted on objects d’art and utilitarian items.
I would like to close the curtains with this little verse of Oscar Wilde from “Le Jardin” in “Impressions (I.)”

The gaudy leonine sunflower
Hangs black and barren on its stalk,
And down the windy garden walk
The dead leaves scatter, -hour by hour.



Bibliography:
“Folklore and symbolism of flowers, plants and trees” by Ernst and Johanna Lehner
“ A Contemplation upon flowers” by Bobby J. Ward. (from which I almost stole the title of this section.

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