Friday 6 April 2012

Flower Power- violets

When I began researching lgbt symbolism in flowers I never thought that it would lead me to Good Friday. It began when I took a look at the origin of the violet as a lesbian symbol. The connection to Good Friday has nothing to do with lesbianism but it gave me a reason to write about it today, Good Friday, and to use a different colour text.

According to medieval legend there were violets growing on Mount Calvary around the cross on which Jesus was crucified. As the shadow of the cross fell upon the violets they bowed their heads in shame at what mankind had done. Perhaps that story was invented to give a reason why violets were used in Good Friday services.

Now back to lesbians. The association of violets with lesbians goes back to the poet Sappho in ancient Greece. But the association in ancient Greece spreads into other areas of the lgbt community.

Just as the narcissus grew from the blood or body of a person, so too did the violet according the Greek mythology.

Attis was the lover of Cybele, the Mother Goddess. There are various versions of Attis’s death, but the common element is that Attis castrated himself under a pine tree, and violets grew out of the drops of blood as they fell onto the ground. Three days later Attis came back to life.

The legend of Attis, of how he died and came back to life has led some people to claim that the story of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection is copied from it. The story of death and resurrection occurs all over the world at springtime, even in cultures cut off from others, so this isn’t very likely. They merely illustrate the concept of life after death which can be understood by the worshippers. But it probably explains why violets from the spring festival of Attis were used by early Christians in Good Friday services after pagan festivals were banned in the Roman Empire. Like modern Christmas trees the Attis violets were merely decorative. I can imagine some early evangelical or anti-Christian party-pooper criticising the use of “pagan” violets, and the early Christians having to justify using them by coming up with the legend of flowers at the foot of the cross.

During the spring festivals of Cybele and Attis at this time of year pine trees were chopped down, taken into Cybele’s temples and decorated with violets. On the 3rd day of the festival the novice priests would castrate themselves in imitation of Attis.

These priests were galled galli. They became a well-known community in the Roman Empire. Not only did they perform the ritual act of de-masculinisation (good word, wonder if it really exists!). Because of this the galli were often given derogatory names, just as gay men were called pansies and puffs in modern times. Parts of the modern transgender community identify strongly with the galli, and several modern cults of Cybele have been established with their worshippers adopting the name of galli.

In modern times the use of violets is lesbian symbolism seems to have been popularised by a play by Edouard Bourdet called “The Captive”. It was performed on Broadway in 1927 and caused such a sensation that it was considered obscene and police raided the theatre and stopped the show.

“The Captive” featured a lesbian romance between 2 of the characters, Irene and the unseen Madame d’Aiguines. Their relationship is symbolised by the posies of violets Madame send to Irene. This act of lesbian love was what the police considered obscene!

The idea of giving violets became popular with New York lesbians and it spread across the community. I suppose the notoriety the play received outside the community meant that it was hardly a secret sign.


  1. They are also a symbol of bisexual, pan, etc. women as they are a symbol of sapphic love.

  2. The lotus flower sinks back into the deep and dark waters at night in order to emerge as fresh and pure to welcome the sun at dawn. This happens every day, year round in Egypt. This is why the lotus flower has become associated with the sun god, Atom.Lotus flower meaning

  3. The french poet Renee Vivien also uses violets as a motif because of her unrequited first love Violet and her knowledge of Sappho