In the beginning, all roses were white. It took Aphrodite’s pricking herself on a thorn and bleeding to put a touch of pink into the bloom. (There’s a Christian story to the same effect, the rose bush in question being beneath the cross.) Aphrodite appropriated the flower for herself, making it a standard for all things love related. She had her son Eros (aka Cupid) deliver a bouquet to Harpocrates, the god of silence, as a bribe to prevent his blabbing about Aphrodites’ decidedly sex positive private life.
Given that Harpocrates was supposed to be even younger than Cupid, I’m surprised anything could keep him from embarrassing his elders, but there it is. The story, even if it is garbled, was suggestive enough to put roses on the ceilings of drinking and dining rooms, as the Rev. Brewer puts it, “to remind the guests that what was spoken sub vino was not to be uttered sub divo.”* Thus – sub rosa, i.e.. What happens at the orgy, stays at the orgy.
(Or, again according to Brewer, at the confessional, at least as of 1526. He also notes that roses cover the ceiling at the banquet room at Haddon Hall. Makes sense. We’ll assume that you don’t last that long without making a few back corner deals, and Haddon Hall has survived unscathed since 1087. Worth noting that in Britain the circle that surrounds the conjunction of chandelier to ceiling is still called ceiling rose, a throwback to the old ways. But I digress.)
The Greeks wouldn’t have had roses at all if Chloris hadn’t come across a dead nymph. So appalling was this sight, that Chloris called on Aphrodite to give the corpse beauty, Dionysus, a pleasing scent; the Three Graces, charm, brightness, and joy; and Apollo warmth to make her bloom.
In India, Brahma and Vishnu debated the best looking flower, Brahma opting for the Lotus, Vishnu the rose. Brahma came into the argument at a disadvantage, having never actually seen a rose, and as soon as he did, he conceded the point. A good loser, he gathered 108 large petals and 1008 small and created Lakshmi as a bride for Vishnu. (RED ALERT! I find this story widely repeated in western sources, but never from Hindu or Indian sources, and frankly, I smell something not quite right. Anyone who knows more about this than I do, please let us know.)
Romans adored the rose. During the reign of Domitian, the Egyptians thought they could earn Brownie Points by delivering fresh roses in winter. It was a cunning plan, but a little naive. The Romans had figured out artificial propagation and were well supplied with roses, even in January. The satirist Martial marked this error and got down to the heart of the matter: “Send us your food, Egypt, and we’ll send you roses.” Mitte tuas messes, accipe, Nile, rosas (Martial 6:80)
Rosewater, water steeped in rose petals, has been a staple for centuries in cookery, medicine, and perfume, and now even cocktails (Rose Martini, anyone?) . It attaches to stories of stupendous wealth, everything from fountains spouting the stuff (Rome again) to canals filled with the stuff (Moghul India)**, but it was rose oil, such as attar of rose, that raised the bar, and like so many good things, it was accidental.
The story goes that the 16th century perfumer Asmat Begam noted a layer of scum accreted on the surfaces of jugs when hot rose water passed over it. Curious, she gathered this stuff and realized that rubbing a bit of it on her hands was far more effective than mere rosewater. For her services to Moghul perfume, she was presented with a string of pearls.
It sounds about right, but since all anecdotes are improved by attaching them to someone more famous, this story, suitably modified, went to Asmat Begam’s daughter, Nur Jahan.
Nur Jahan (1577-1645) was the twentieth and favorite wife of the Mogul Emperor Jahangir (her niece was the inspiration for the Taj Mahal). This remarkable woman’s talents ranged from clothing design to perfumery to tiger hunting (six tigers with four shots- better than I could do) to political skullduggery. As her husband, not the most robust of men, turned in later years to drink and opium, she to wielding power.
The rose story goes that, after a marital spat, she decided to throw a party as a make up gesture. To this end she ordered several large vats of rosewater prepared and woe betide anyone who tampered with them. In the heat of the day, she nodded off. The sun broke down the roses’ essential oils and when she awoke, she saw a layer of film on the surface. She assumed someone had thrown fat in the tanks until she tested the stuff. Immediately she rubbed the scum all over her clothing and ran off to tell her husband about this wonderful discovery, and we can hope, found better things to do than throwing a mere party.***
After Jahangir’s death and her failure to convince a possible heir from taking his army to Afghanistan (a failure which cost the empire Kandahar), Nur Jahan retired, like it or not, to pursue her mother’s passion of making perfume – all things considered, a relatively benign past-time.
*The story is summed up in an anonymous quatrain of 1550:
Est Rosa flos Veneris, cuius quo furta laterent,
Harpocrati matris dona dicavit Amor.
Inde rosam mensis hospes suspendit amici,
Convivæ ut sub ea dicta tacenda sciant.
“Rose is the flower of Venus, by which her dalliances might lie concealed,
Cupid dedicated to Harpocratus, his mother’s gifts (a wreath).
Thus the host suspends a rose over the friendly banquet table,
That guests know to keep shtum, concerning what is said beneath.)
Okay, it could scan better, but the sense of it’s there.
**Ce qu’il y eut de plus remarquable fut une promenade sur un petit canal que Nur-Jaham fit tout remplir d’eau rose.”
*** More on this fascinating woman can be found in Nur Jahan: Empress of Mughal India, by Ellison Banks Findly.