by Nicole Hadaway
“The branch of a wild rose on his coffin keep him that he move not from it[.]” Abraham Van Helsing, Dracula by Bram Stoker
“A white rose for each of you. Tie them in your hair or around your neck.” Matthew Burke, ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
Part of the fun of reading vampire novels is wondering which traits from vampiric lore the author will give his or her vampires, such as, “can they walk in sunlight?” or “does silver hurt them?” or “are they repelled by religious objects?” As an author, picking and choosing which parts of vampire folklore your book will follow can be a bit daunting, as there are many from which on can choose . As I was deciding the strengths and weaknesses my vampires would have, I came across a bit of information that surprised me. Apparently, as shown by the quotes above (from two vampire “Bibles” no less) – roses act as a deterrent to the creatures of the night. “What power could such a pretty flower hold against the strength of the undead?” I wondered.
So I started researching. In vampire folklore, it seems (at least to me) that items which repel or harm vampires can be divided into two categories: religious and medicinal. Vampires are seen as evil beings, the spawn of Satan who drink the blood of the living to extend their unnatural life, and therefore religious objects (especially those pertaining to Christianity) will hurt or ward off the evil. Vampirism can also be seen as something unclean, infested with a sickness -- a rotting, decaying corpse walking around, and that might call to mind some folk remedies (in the days before antibiotics, mind you). Thus you have purifying objects, such as sunlight and garlic, or running water, used to ward off the undead. Yet even these objects seem a bit substantial – silver is a precious metal, the sun is a huge planet that heats the earth, and the smell of garlic – hey, if my husband wore a wreath of garlic around his neck, I’d run the other way! I still wondered where the beautiful rose fit in all of these talismans.
The wild roses mentioned by Stoker may be a reference to the hawthorn shrub, which is a member of the rose family and is known for its rose-like blooms, each featuring five petals. Hawthorn shrubs had a very practical use back in the day; they were planted along property borders because their large, thick, thorn-covered branches would deter any trespassers. Thus, if one is looking for a way to keep a vampire from rising from its grave, several hawthorn branches would ensnare the corpse to prevent its movement. This is similar to the idea that the corpse of a suspected vampire should be staked to its grave, to prevent it from getting out of the coffin.
The hawthorn shrub also had magical or mystical associations; the Celts used it to inscribe runes, Gaelic peoples thought that the bushes, which marked the entrance to the otherworld, also housed fairies, and it was nailed above thresholds to keep out witches. One of the more likely reasons hawthorn and wild roses are thought to stop a vampire in his (or her) tracks is the legend that the branches of the hawthorn were used to make the crown of thorns worn by Jesus on the cross, thus giving the shrub a Christian (and anti-vampire) significance.
As for cultivated roses, there are various myths linking the rose to Aphrodite. The foam dripping off her seashell as she rode to shore actually turned into white roses, the symbol of her innocence and purity (the red rose came about when Aphrodite cut her finger and dripped blood on the white rose while chasing after her lover, Adonis, and therefore the red rose is a symbol of love and passion). The middle ages saw a resurgence in the popularity of the rose as a symbol of the female ideal and courtly love, and the flower eventually became synonymous with the Virgin Mary. It would make sense then that a white rose, representing the purity and innocence of Mary, would repel the evil of the undead.
Though the rose has religious significance in vampire lore, there’s a medicinal connection as well. In the Middle Ages, rose petals were used to purify clothes, linens, and the air (people would sniff them in an effort to ward off the plague), and it was an ingredient in many folk remedies. In later centuries, rose hips were eaten to prevent scurvy (apparently they are higher in vitamin C than citrus fruit!).
Thus, considering the rose’s history in both religion and medicine, I can see now why the flower was mentioned by both Stoker and King as a protection against vampires. I’m certainly convinced enough to keep the wild rose shrubs I’ve got growing in my yard (they came with the house)! But if the handsome, smooth, suave Fright Night vampire moves next door to me, well….. I hope you enjoyed reading this; I certainly had fun researching it, and for those of you who saw the title and started singing that Smithereens song, you can listen to it here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqML7WbOun8)!