Flora, Goddess of Flowers
Flora is the ultimate goddess of flowers and blossoming, having her festival, the Floralia on 27th or 28th April and lasting five days. She is our original May Queen. Her name comes from the latin word meaning flower ‘Floris’ – her Greek counterpart was Chloris, goddess of flowers and a nymph from the islands of the blessed, who was the wife of Zephyrus, the west wind, who pursued her for his bride. You can see Flora and Zephyrus in Botticelli’s famous painting of Primavera.
The Floralia and a temple in Flora’s honour was built at the direction of a Sybilline oracle in 239 bc for the protection and abundance of flowering plants. It was annually celebrated with games and miming plays and the prostitutes of Rome performed naked in theatres. Deer or goats and hares were released and colourful garments were worn as opposed to the usual white. It does seem to have got quite out of hand and offended the sensibility of those who felt such festivals should have a more temperate nature than ‘unseemly debauchery’.
Ovid describes her as “a goddess comes framed in a thousand varied garlands of flowers; and the stage has freer license for mirth”, adding that as she speaks, “her lips breathe spring roses”. Ovid gives her voice; “I enjoy perpetual spring; the year always shines, trees are leafing, the soild always fodders. I have a fruitful garden in my dowered fields, fanned by breezes, fed by limpid fountains. My husband filled it with well bred flowers saying, “Have jurisdiction of the flower, goddess”.“
The Arcadian hymn to Flora by Richard Henry Stoddard in 19th century, is a delightful description of the beauty of the season, the promise of summer on the horizon and the lending of such time to traditional May Day celebrations; the bathing of the maiden’s faces in dew at dawn, gathering blossoms, the incense, garlands, the baskets and the Queen of May. An extract below:
Come all ye virgins fair, in kirtles white,
Ye debonair and merry hearted maids,
Who have been out in troops before the light,
And gathered blossoms in the dewy shades
The footprints of the fiery-sandaled Day
Are glowing in the east like kindling coals..
The shrine is wreathed with leaves, the holy urns
Brimming with morning dew are laid thereby:
The censers swing, the odourous incense burns
And floats in misty volumes up the sky;
Lay down your garlands and your baskets trim,
Heaped up with floral offerings to the brim,
And knit your snowy hands and trip away
With light and nimble feet
And celebrate the joyous break of day,
And sing a hymn to Flora, Queen of May!
And so we delight once more as the season of blossoms is upon us. The beauty and fragrance of this time is intoxicating and delightful, much as love is. Let us celebrate that! As even in the midst of difficulty, in the uncertainty and the darkness, it is indeed love that will see us through.