Passiflora The Symbolism of the Passion Flower


I. The Sacred

"She heard no sound before her gate,
Though very quiet was her bower.
All was as her hand had left it late:
The needle slept on the broidered vine,
Where the hammer & spikes of the passion-flower
Her fashioning did wait."

-Helen Gray Cone,

Throughout Central & South America there grow hundreds of species of Passion Flowers, one of which grows in our garden, Passiflora caerulea, discussed at considerable length on its own page. This is the first species of Passiflora to be cultivated in Europe, & it was this species that was first to acquire particular significance to Catholics. We also have a hybrid passionflower called 'Lavender Lady,' which has the same symbol-rich flower but of a transluscent violet-lavender hue.

I love to discover the mythological & symbolic meanings people have imposed on gardened plants, & Passion Flower turns out to be one of the more oddly varied in its symbology. One large component of its ascribed meaning will strike many as sacred & blessed. Whoever thinks so is apt to regard its other & somewhat underground meaning as the opposite of sacred & blessed.

When the Conquistadores arrived in "New Spain," they saw symbols of their Faith in these extraordinarily beautiful flowers, hence the "Passion" is a Catholic reference to the Passion of Jesus. Doubtless it initially gave the Spanish conquerors the impression of a saint's halo. Their fascination for this flower must have led early converts in the New World to take whatever mythology they already possessed regarding this flower, & refashioned it to fit into a Catholic pattern, much as one of the key native Mexican goddesses, Tonantzin, was instantly transformed into the Virgin of Guadeloupe, who predates the arrival of Christianity & is even today depicted sans Jesus.

Such transformations permitted Native peoples to continue to worship whoever they had always worshipped, but in new guises so that their conquerors would stop beating the living daylights out of them.

An Augustan friar of Mexican extraction travelled to Rome with his sketchbook, including a portrait of P. caerulea. He showed this to a scholarly monk, Jacomo Bosio, telling him of its sacred meaning for Mexican Christians. Although Bosio was destined to gain credit for formalizing the Passion Flower's Catholic symbology, very likely it should be ascribed to his source, Emmanuel de Villegas, whose album of drawings this Native American had created "for the glory of Christ."

Bosio did not believe the extravagant portrait could be anything but a fantasy. On the authority of one starry-eyed Native American convert, Bosio was disinclined to refer to it in his own work about symbols of the Cross. When a group of Mexican Jesuits visited Rome, he showed them the portrait, & was assured that Emmanuel de Villegas had drawn it correctly. Still Bosio was dubious. There may have been a subtle element of racism in his disbelief, for these first reports & reassurances came from Mexican converts, not from Spaniards or Italians. Only when he saw poems about the flower published by Dominicans, plus other drawings & writings of floral marvels observed by missionaries to the Americas, did Bosio finally believe the fantastical flower existed. In 1609, he published de Villagas's flower portrait together with a report on the flower's symbology, which runs thus:

Five petals & five sepals are ten apostles, leaving out Judas the betrayer & Peter because he denied knowing Jesus. The purple carolla Bosio reported had seventy-two filaments, the number of thorns in Jesus's crown. The three pistil stigmas are nails. The five stamens are the number of wounds, so that to this day, Catholics in South & Central America call it "The Flower of the Five Wounds." The leaf represents the spear that placed the wound in Jesus's side (that one is a stretch since the leaves are five-lobed, but unlike some other species, this one's individual lobes are at least lance-shaped). The dark spots under the leaves are the 33 pieces of silver paid to Judas. When the flowers are spent after a single day (the time Jesus spent on the cross), the petals do not drop from the vine but re-close over the ovary, & this symbolizes the Hidden Wisdom that constitutes the Mysteries of the Cross, & is like Jesus enclosed in the tomb.

This rich symbolism was embellished by later authors so that the white petals came to represent the purity of Jesus, the palmate leaves the hands of his prosecutors, & the clinging tendrils the cords of Jesus's bondage (or the whips with which he was lashed). The fruit itself is the Earth for which Jesus promised salvation.

What may have been the central Passion Flower mythology before the arrival of conquering Europeans, whether in armor or in monks' robes, cannot at this late date be recovered with any certainty. But Passion Flower is known to have been cultivated in the gardens of Aztec priests & kings. Its medical properties as a sedative became known in the west because a Spanish physician in 1560s was willing to listen to magical flora legends of Aztec Indians. One of the Sun-god myths of the Aztecs alludes to the healing properties of the "Snake Vine," that is, a vine guarded by a serpent.

This sacred plant is commonly identified as Ipomoea sidaefolia a variety of Morning Glory with hallucinogenic properties & which was of highly sacred importance. But Morning Glory does not actually meet the specifics alluded to in the Snake Vine myth, of it having healing properties, & having black seeds (which describesP. caerula). In fact the Snake Vine was probably identified with any number of vines depending on the localized flora as the Snake Vine myth migrated north & south through the Americas. And species of Passiflora were particularly widespread, did have the medicinal besides having the opiating properties ascribed to the snake vine. Further, the snake vine myth alludes to it growing where forests have burned down. Passion Flowers are in fact among the first vines to return after a burn. There are even species of Passion Flower with seeds that are induced to germinate by a burn-through.

Inca mythology includes the Vine of Souls which housed ancestral spirits. It is today identified with one of the most sacred of all vines, Ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi) which has hallucinogenic alkaloids, & this would certainly have been the correct identification throughout the Amazon region, where concoctions of Ayahuasca mixed with other chemically powerful plants are imbibed to open doorways into the supernatural world of the dead. But the myth was more widespread than the species, & peoples who knew the myth would have identified the Ancestral Spirit Vine with whatever grew locally that was known to have magical properties. This would sometimes be Passiflora, whose large hollow fruits would indeed make good houses for spirits, & whose sleep-inducing properties might induce prophetic dreams.

Vines were associated with nearly every Sun-myth of the Americas. The radiating circle of Passiflora's extravagant flowers were particularly apt to invoke the sun for sun-worshipping pyramid-building jungle peoples such as the Aztecs, Mayans, & Incans. The Mayan word for Vine, akh, also means Tongue, which indicates a belief that vines could speak, or that certain vines could induce prophetic speech.

In Mayan mythology vines are associated with death & the underworld. Archeologists have recovered multiple Mayan artifacts which a recurring image, that of a vine associated with a severed human head. One Mayan relief depicts a vine that is sprouting directly from a head, the vine grasped by a sun-watching human figure wearing the headdress of a king or priest. Another vine shown in the same relief terminates with the head of a snake. These scenes allude to a Mayan resurrection myth of Hun Hunahpu, who was slain, beheaded, & reborn as maize. Yet instead of maize these pictures clearly show Hun Hunahpu's severed head associated with a vine, which may have invoked both or either a squash vine or Passion Flower, the fruits of which could easily represent severed human heads. Like Sumerian Dumuzi reborn in the grain but actually representing all fertility & especially all plant life, the dying & reborn Mayan Maize God represented all beneficial plantlife rather than just maize, even as Jesus is risen in the spring when the land is newly green.

If serpent mythology was in fact entwined with Passiflora mythology, as Mayan, Incan & Aztec snake-headed vine-image lends one to suspect, it was a large myth indeed, as the sacredness of serpents in Native American mythology is extravagant & signal, though I will not outline it here. Enough to say that much of the serpent mythology is cthonic in nature, even as is the central Christian myth. So it could all be easily Christianized by the converted aboriginal peoples themselves, just as medieval Christians took the Caduceus representing either the Greek Gods of Medicine & of Speed, reinterpreting the serpent on the sword as Jesus on the Cross (citing also the brass pole-serpent established by Moses). At the same time, finding the serpent image a little unsettling, the symbol was frequently changed from a snake into a vine that uses a cross as a trellis. Such Christian symbols would not have been completely alien to aboriginal peoples, whose own myths held so many parallels.

The idea of sacred human sacrifice, & God's death & resurrection, of God as Vine, were well known in Mesoamerica long before any Jesuit intruded upon Precolumbian patterns of religious life. Since Passion Flower leaves & seeds provide an extract with a sleep-inducing effect (P. murucuja is even sometimes called Dutchman's Laudanum, & Passion Flower herbs have been used to wean addicts off of heroin), this may have provided a further association with sleep as temporary death, easily adapted to the centermost Christian myth. Passion Flower extract being long valued as a euphoric opiate may have lent it to be used to induce calmness in individuals destined as Sun-offerings.

PassifloraII. And the Profane

"Oh, cut me reeds to blow upon,
Or gather me a star,
But leave the sultry passion-flowers
Growing where they are.

I fear their sombre yellow deeps,
Their whirling fringe of black,
And he who gives a passion-flower
Always asks it back."

-Grace Hazard Conkling,

Whatever the original myth may have been, it was something easily transferred from one sacred context to another, & retains the new associations down to our era. Not everyone in the world is Catholic, however, so in many regions of the Americas & Europe, as well as in Oceanic & Asiatic countries, the flowers' identification with "the" Passion is not evident. Hence it has a plethora of the common names generally inspired by the appearance of the fruit. For quick examples, it is also known as Water Lemon Vine because the fruits look like lemons, Maypop Vine because the fruits are hollow & burst open with a pop if squeezed, or Bell-apple Vine, among others.

There are also gardeners who have reasons in their lives to feel damaged by Catholic prejudices or unhappy childhood associations, or a cultural dislike due to history's harmful conquests. Such folks might take an actual exception to this symbolism, so seek alternative interpretations to justify growing Passion Flowers in their own gardens. Some neo-pagans claim herbal essences of Passion Flower restrain religious fanaticism while preserving a higher faith. Aiden Butler even constructed an alternative Athiest Symbolism for Passiflora, published in the Spring 2000 issue of Passiflora: The Official Newsletter of the Passiflora Society.

In Japan, where Catholic symbolism is pretty much incomprehensible, Passion Flowers are called Clock Face Flowers, & they certainly are reminiscent of time pieces. Additionally, in Tokyo & other large urban centers, Passion Flowers are symbolic of homosexual youths, much as the Green Carnation symbolized gay men in late Victorian London, or the Hyacinth symbolizing the young passive partner within Athenian homosexual couples because Hyacinthus was the beloved of Zeus.

This symbology may have arisen in part from the color purple (close enough to lavender, the color most often identified with Gay Liberation); by the fact that the Passion Flowers are themselves double-sexed; & by the flowers' gaudiness reflecting one aesthetic of gay youth. Early in the Tokugawa period homosexual youths called wakashu wore flowery purple garments & were so fashionable that they influenced even what was faddish for young women to wear, flat-chested androgyny being the standard of beauty even for women. When it became impossible to tell the boys from the girls, the government made a decree that all young men must shave their forelocks, as the government disliked the liaisons that developed between samurai & these beautiful young men. When wakashu began wearing scarves over their foreheads to hide the shaved forelock, such scarves instantly became fashionable for young women to wear too! So the government was stymied in legislating against the fashionable androgyny of youth.

But the foremost reason for Passion Flower's homosexual symbolism is not that it reflects modern & classical androgyny, nor because of the flowery kimonos of the much-imitated wakashu of Tokugawa Japan. Rather, the association is because the flower can so easily be viewed as a rather romanticized version of the human anus.

Now some will be chuckling over Passiflora as Symbol of Christ & Human Anus. Others will be upset that from this moment on they will not be able to look at this flower without realizing indeed there is a resemblance to a human bunghole. Well what can I say; I am intringued by the full range of flower symbolism. And flowers have symbolized various aspects of human sexuality from great antiquity, so this one should be of no really great surprise to anyone.

The homosexual association probably did not originate in Japan, but in the Americas. It's just that in Japan, the former tradition of vaunted wakashu is retained in popular culture. For large example, manga (comic books) tend to have superheros of an effeminate nature, & the concept of the girlish homosexual hero is normative rather than underground in Japanese popular culture. So a flower-symbol of heroic homosexuality, once encountered, was readily coopted.

In the west the "Passion" of this flower was not invariably of a religious nature, & one of its many common names, "Love-in-the-Mist," alludes to the other meaning of "Passion." Hence Passion Flower herbs & oils become ingredients in neo-pagan love filtres & aphrodisiacs, without regard for the fact that it is much more apt to induce sleep than arousal. So too "Passion Flower" became a name for a 1990s Oakland store specializing in lubes, lotions, & latex, & the store's only outside signage was a painting of a purple Passion Flower at the entrance. The Passion Flower may also have been a jazz slang term because it was an open secret that Duke Ellington's hit "Passion Flower" was written by the delicate Billy Strayhorn, whose own passions were known to be homosexual.

If the passionate association is more apt to be homoerotic than hetero, it may be in part because the anti-spasmodic medicinal effect of the seed oil can help relax sphincter muscles, in addition to its aforementioned resemblance. Various species of Passiflora rival sunflower & soybean for the amount of oil that can be extracted from the seeds. Can it be only a coincidence that there are two lubricants marketed to gay men, one made of P. elacsis sold as "Palm Oil" distributed Select Oils Company, the misleading pun-name indicating that masturbators can use it on their palms; the other called Andros Sports Creme containing extract of P. coerulea claiming rather suspiciously to possess an anti-estrogenic effect that will increase men's sexual potency when lubricating the male member. Both of these products are marketed almost exclusively within the gay men's community.

The Passion Flower does not so often represent gay women, despite the 1962 sexploitation comic novel Passion Flower Hotel by Rosalind Erskine (in reality by Roger Longrigg), which was adapted as a 1978 film about students in an all girls' school who "practice" with each other before turning to a life of prostitution. It features a young Nastasia Kinski, seen variously misbehaving in soft focus, while the effeminate candy-popper singing couple Chad & Jeremy camp up the soundtrack with British Invasion diddies.

I resist making apropos jests about anuses or penis enlargment & Jesus on the Cross. In Michael Moorcock's time travel novel Behold the Man, a masochistic Jesus was in fact momentarily aroused in all his naked glory on the cross, but then it was just too painful to sustain the pleasure. But to keep some respect for the faithful in mind, simultaneously hoping the faithful will likewise keep some respect for gays, I'd like to suggest that the two main symbolic meanings of the Passion Flower — representing both Gay Men, & Jesus on the cross — might be properly combined if the gay Catholic organization Dignity adopted the Passion Flower as their symbol.


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