The Breastplate of Righteousness 3

Just over eighty years ago, on Saturday 5 August 1933, our local newspaper ‘THE COURIER-MAIL’ printed this fascinating article equating the rose of Sharon with the narcissus tazetta. Although many websites identify this particular narcissus as the Biblical rose of Sharon mentioned in both Song of Songs and Isaiah, I have not found any other document which explains why the two are linked. This article also mentions marriage customs involving the narcissus which I have not seen recorded in any other place. Thank you, Dr Goddard!

The Rose of Sharon
An Ancient Legend about the Narcissus and its Symbolism in Christianity

AMONG the ruins of Geba, where murmuring waters flow from Mount Ebal to the sea, the excavation of an ancient city of Israel has begun. Here it was that tradition has placed the vineyard of Naboth. Here it was that Elijah stood as “a fury slinging flame” and hurled his anathemas at King Ahab and his proud consort.

Among the first treasures brought to light is a fragment of a slab on which is cut the flower of a narcissus, and under it the words in ancient Hebrew: “The bulb of Sharon.” There is no indication as to what this stone stood for, as the upper part is missing and could not be traced. Probably it has been ground to powder, as Geba was destroyed to form the foundation of a Roman city.

But there is a wealth of story and probably biblical commentary in this bit of ancient stone. In the “Song of Solomon” in the Old Testament we read of the “rose of Sharon” and “the lily of the valleys.” The ancient Hebrew word for “bulb” is the same as that for “rose,” and it was not till the artificial introduction of vowel points that the two words could be distinguished. This fragment recovered at Geba strongly suggests that this passage should read as follows:

I am the narcissus of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.

Legend of the Narcissus

WE know that Narcissus tazetta, the polyanthus or bunch-flowered narcissus, was exceedingly popular in ancient Palestine, where, we are told, it was to be found in every house. We read of large supplies of this flower being sent as gifts lo the rulers of Damascus and other foreign countries. From Palestine it passed into Europe, where it is cultivated today for its rich perfume.
In Biblical times this plant grew wild on the famous Plain of Sharon, which stretched along the sea coast. And here is the significance of its identification as the “Rose of Sharon,” that it was closely related to the nuptial ceremonies in Palestine.

A Hebrew story runs that in the golden morning of the early world an angel sat weeping outside the closed gates of Paradise. He had fallen from his high estate through loving a daughter of earth, and was not permitted to re-enter Paradise till he had planted a garden upon earth. So to earth he came, and, together with his mortal love, set countless bulbs of narcissus upon the Plain of Sharon. They cared for the garden, and when the plain was covered with the blooms so that the perfume reached to heaven they entered together into Paradise. The narcissus bloomed at Sharon as the symbol of eternal love.

Based on that legend, the narcissus became the bridal flower of Hebrew maidens, the emblem of pure and eternal devotion. At all marriage feasts it was prominent, and its perfume was described by one of the Rabbis as “the link that binds the mortal and immortal loves.” In the earliest Hebrew marriage festivals two blooms of narcissus were set before the bride and bridegroom as symbols of the beauty of their marriage, and Windischmann identifies it as “the flower of the life that bloomed in Paradise.”

Narcissus and Christianity

NOW, it has long been recognised by Biblical scholars that the “song of Solomon,” or, as it is often called, the “song of songs,” is a collection of marriage songs, doubtless the finest collection in any language. In fact, as one reads it in this light, the entire marriage festival can be easily visualised. And the waiting bride in language that all of her age and land can understand declares:
I am as the narcissus on the Plain of Sharon, as the lily among the valleys.

Such light thrown on the Old Testament by archaeology is not merely a matter of translation. It becomes a splendid apologetic, arranging the sublime language of the “song of songs” in its proper traditional setting. It becomes an interpretation, bringing out the original and essential meaning.
This symbolism of the narcissus of Sharon passed over, as was the case with so many customs, into Christianity. The narcissus and the lily are assigned especially to the Madonna, which are declared to be flowers “appropriate to the Annunciation.” In one period of Italian art these blooms are put into the hand of the Angel Gabriel, who holds in his other hand the sceptre.
It is noteworthy that the early Hebrew association of the narcissus and the marriage festival is still maintained in various parts of the world. In some districts of Germany and Scandinavia the bride always carries in her hand to the altar a narcissus bloom, while in the Christian churches of Georgia in the Caucasus no other decoration for marriage festivals is allowed. In this country both the bride and groom enter the church bearing in their hands blooms of Narcissus tazetta. In China the same flower is invested with a sacred meaning, and is known as the joss flower, or sacred lily.

The actual name as we know it is, of course, linked up with a Greek legend of Narcissus, but this is a much later association. The “Rose of Sharon,” or, as we now call it, narcissus, was believed by the Hebrews to have been transplanted on the Plain of Sharon in Palestine from the Garden of Eden.

1 Comment

  1. I’m not a flower type guy re names etc but I do enjoy them. Appreciated your insights into the rose (narcissus)of Sharon (knew it wasn’t a rose). Found the mentioning of customs very interesting. Always enjoy your research, explanations and insights.

    Have a great day.

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