Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Herbalism - Pansies

I mentioned the quote from Hamlet in my last herbalism post that Ophelia says shortly before her death, while giving out flowers:

"There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray, love, remember: and there is pansies. that's for thoughts." - Ophelia,Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5.

The other flower mentioned besides rosemary in that sentence is pansies.  I hadn't really heard much about the symbolism of pansies, but I think they're lovely, so I decided to do some research!

Pansies are a hybrid of several families of violas, and were bred and cultivated in the early nineteenth century.  That means that really Ophelia couldn't have possibly had modern pansies (and neither could Shakespeare), though that name was used to refer to violas as well.

This embroidery was done by a young Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I) at age 11.  The initials, KP, were that of her stepmother Katherine Parr, for whom the gift was made.

Pansies go by many names.  I found this snippet from Wikipedia especially useful when looking for info on how to use the pansy in ritual or symbolism:

"The name “heart’s-ease” came from the woman St. Euphrasia, whose name in Greek signifies cheerfulness of mind. The woman, who refused marriage and took the veil, was considered a pattern of humility, hence the name “humble violet”.[ The specific colors of the flower – purple, yellow, and white – are meant to symbolize memories, loving thoughts and souvenirs, respectively."

There is also this explanation of where the name pansy comes from:

"The name 'pansy' is derived from the French word pensée meaning "thought", and was so named because the flower resembles a human face; in August it nods forward as if deep in thought." 

Here is an image by Grandville from 1846 of a personified pansy, deep in thought:

In Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream the love potion used to create so much of the midsummer mayhem is made from pansy, here called by one of its other names, love-in-idleness (referring to the type of love where one wants to do nothing but be with one's beloved):

"Yet marked I where the bolt of Cupid fell.
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound.
And maidens call it “love-in-idleness.”
Fetch me that flower. The herb I showed thee once.
The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees." (Act II, Scene 1)

Another quote from wikipedia on symbolism says:

"In 1858, the writer James Shirley Hibberd wrote that the French custom of giving a bride a bouquet of pansies (thoughts) and marigolds (cares) symbolized the woes of domestic life rather than marital bliss."

And this little gem on pioneer custom:

"American pioneers thought that 'a handful of violets taken into the farmhouse in the spring ensured prosperity, and to neglect this ceremony brought harm to baby chicks and ducklings.' On account of its place in American hearts, a game called “Violet War” also arose. In this game, two players would intertwine the hooks where the pansy blossoms meet the stems, then attempt to pull the two flowers apart like wishbones. Whoever pulled off the most of their opponent’s violet heads was proclaimed the winner. Young American settlers also made pansy dolls by lining up the pansy flower 'faces', pasting on leaf skirts and twig arms to complete the figures"

Because of the association of thought, some people say pansies have an association with telepathy, and that holding a pansy to your ear will allow you to hear your love's thoughts/words.  The dual association with love and thought/remembrance leads some to extrapolate that pansies are good for easing the pain of a loved one who has passed away.  In the Victorian language of flowers, a man giving a pansy to his love meant "think of me."

The heart-shaped petals of the pansy also led to an association with healing a broken heart, part of the Doctrine of Signatures (the idea that plants shaped like a body part would help that body part).

One website mentions a type of divination with pansy petals:

"Pansies were fortune tellers for King Arthur's Knights of the Round table. Plucking a pansy petal, the knights would look for secret signs. If the petal had four lines, this meant hope. If the lines were thick and leaned toward the left, this meant a life of trouble. Lines leaning toward the right signified prosperity until the end. Seven lines meant constancy in love (and if the center streak were the longest, Sunday would be the wedding day). Eight streaks meant fickleness, nine meant a changing of heart, and eleven signified disappointment in love and an early grave. "

After Ophelia's death in Shakespeare's Hamlet, her father Laertes hopes pansies will grow on Ophelia's grave:

 “Lay her in the earth, and from her fair and unpolluted flesh may violet spring” (Act V, Scene 1)

As a final note, pansies and violets are edible, and have a delicate, sweet flavor.  Use the flowers in salads, or they can be sugared and used as decoration for cakes and desserts.


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