Violets aren’t all purple, so what do they really mean? All flowers represent something to a particular culture, and their secret meanings are used as symbolism in poetry, stories, plays, and movies that we all love.
Most flowers are given their symbol and meaning from a specific myth or religious story. In that regard, violets are no different than a rose, daisy, or lily.
There are more than 400 types of violets in the world, and while not all of them are purple, they all share a common symbolic meaning, with roots in Greek myth and Christianity: innocence, modesty, and humility.
Ancient Greeks used violets in the production of specific foods, drinks, and medicines. The earliest known record of people cultivating and purposefully growing violets dates back to 500 B.C.E. The Greeks wanted to grow violets because they understood the flowers had a complex array of beneficial properties. In fact, some people still today claim that violets can be used to produce an aspirin-like effect.
This potential soothing ability has helped to associate violets with the positive symbols of innocence and humility.
Because of the extensive use of violets in ancient times, Greeks came to imbue the gentle flower with all sorts of symbolic meaning. One myth centered around Artemis and her virginal nymphs. In the story, Artemis transforms one of the nymphs into a flower to protect her from Artemis’s brother, Apollo, who is in a fit of destructive rage. Because of the nymph’s innocence and simplicity, the violet came into existence representative of modesty, humility, and innocence itself.
This story was so popular that the violet became the symbol of Athens, the ancient Greek city-state. Violets were featured in spring celebrations of fertility and love. They were used as decoration for buildings, gardens, and public walkways, and they were even used to concoct “love potions”, though later science confirmed that violets don’t have any known properties that would make for a good potion.
As time went on, the symbolic meaning of violets stayed fairly consistent. Christian tradition picked up where the ancient Greeks left off and updated the meaning of violets to humility. Christians were especially drawn to violets because, though most often seen with five leaves, many types of violets flower with three distinct leaves, and the trinity is an especially important symbol in the Christian tradition. In medieval times monks referred to violets as “the herbs of the Trinity” or “the flowers of the Trinity”. Christians also pulled violets into their religious stories. Supposed when the angel Gabriel told the virgin Mary that she would give birth to Jesus, violets came into bloom all around them.
While they are most commonly thought of in relation to exuberant celebrations, violets also have their place on the sadder side of life. When thinking about humility, innocence, or fertility as meaning, one tends to focus only on youth. Because of that, it might be surprising to learn that violets are also frequently featured in funerals, both today and in ancient times.
Ideals like modesty and humility have been important since ancient Greek times when those character traits were a reason for admiration. Greeks adorned their funeral pyres with violets to honor the dead and to remember them in the most positive light. In Christian traditions, those same values are the key to living a spiritually fulfilling life and entering heaven. That’s why modern funerals often feature violets — not only do the flowers remind people that another cycle of spring innocence is always around the corner, but they also remind people that the loved one who has passed on led a good life, marked by humility and that they will meet again in the next life. This duality of celebration and mourning shows the depth and symbolic capacity of the violet’s hidden meaning.
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and while that’s equally true of violets, their name helps to mark their place in the world. Since ancient times violets of all colors, shapes, and sizes have symbolized the modesty, humility, innocence, and promise of youth. Whether being highlighted in a spring celebration or adding dignity to a funeral procession, violets deepen the meaning of the world.