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The Flower of Life, symbol of rebirth

The name “Flower of life” [1] indicates a universality of hexapetal flower representations belonging to different periods and contexts. Similar representations were found in different parts of the world with symbolic meanings and terms sometimes partially superimposable, from China to Egypt, to pre-Columbian America.

Mosaic representation of a Flower of life (4th century) in the Museo diocesano “Antelami” of Parma

The simple geometric component belongs to humanity as a whole allowing a parallel development, indipendent among cultures, since its dawn. Below the main meanings of the Flower of life are explored, in the ancient Middle Eastern and European civilizations.

Primitive claims

The first claims probably originate from the Mycenaean civilization of the late Bronze Age. Since then, in fact, the symbol was distinguished by its characteristic geometry with hexagonal symmetry, which provides the representation of an elegant flower with six petals.

Flower of Life
Flower of life in an ornamental disk found in a Mycenae tomb of the 16th century BC, discovered by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876. Archaeological museum of Istanbul. Photo by Marko Manninen [fig.1].

Some centuries later the symbol was certainly used in Northern Iran, in Marlik. In fact, here some artifacts were found, dating back to the 15th century BC [2], which have a Flower of life engraved. The findings, concerning fifty tombs of the local culture, still half-known, are preserved in the Louvre Museum.

Flower of life
Bottom portion of a gold chalice found in Marlik, preserved at the Louvre Museum. Photo: 1985 Photo RMN / Pierre et Maurice Chuzeville

The symbol reappeared in Cyprus and, some centuries later, in the Assyria cultural context, during the last phases of the empire.

The Flower of life is represented inside a cup found in Cyprus (800-700 BC) and preserved at the Louvre Museum in Paris

Among the several findings hosting the Flower of life, discovered in the Assyrian-Babylonian area – most of which are preserved in the archaeological museum of Baghdad – it is cited the most paradigmatic one, discovered among the remains of a palace of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal in Dur Šarrukin [3] and dating to 645 BC.

Flower of life
Flower of life in a portion of the floor in the Palace of Assurbanipal, Louvre Museum of Paris. Photo by Marko Manninen [fig.2]

A solar symbol

In its first attestations the Flower of life could be assimilated to complex cultural contexts, where symbols were an important complement to rituals and anthropological cosmogonies. The symbolism is here linked to the ancient cults of the sun, in Assyria probably connected to the fertility deity Baal.

The Flower of life in the West

From Middle-East the symbol arrived in Europe, probably through the trade routes which were intensifying among peoples of the Iron age.

There are important Etruscan evidences: it is imprinted on an urn in Civitella di Paganico (Grosseto); on a shield of a warrior of ancient Vetulonia at the Museo Isidoro Falchi of Castiglione della Pescaia (Stele of Auele Feluske).

Flower of life
The Stele of Auele Feluske at the Museo Isidoro Falchi of Castiglione della Pescaia

Certainly, it is more fragmented the development of the symbol among the Celtic-influenced European civilizations, originating from the La Tène culture. Particularly, it was found among the pre-Roman Iberian peninsula peoples: in Cantabria it is represented on some funeral stelae; in Galizia as ornament on the houses of the local settlement of Santa Tegra, called oppidum. In this context the Flower of life could be associated to other symbolic representations with a similar meaning, like the Camunian Rose of the Val Camonica.

Flower of life at the Archaeological Museum of Santa Tegra of the 1st century BC (Castro culture), from the homonymous Celtic opidum celtico. Photo by Froaringus [fig 3]
Flower of life
Funerary stele of Cantabria, discovered in the Cildà Mount(Palencia), Museo de Prehistoria y Arqueología de Cantabria. Photo by JI FilpoC [fig. 4]

Symbol of rebirth

It is not clear the primitive area of influence. Whether the cultural influences linked to the concepts of rebirth, fertility, solar cults had contaminated firstly the Etruscan, and other ancient Italic populations, by the contemporary Celts or viceversa.

Nonetheless, in some European contexts, the symbology of the Flower of life related to the concept of rebirth, in association to the solar and fertility cults. For instance, in Northern Italy, along the Alpine area, it is a representation of the daffodil (called also Alps Sun). This is the flower blossoming at the first signs of spring indicating the awakening of nature after the long winter hibernation. It assumed the connotations of the continuous cosmic cycles of death and back to life. For this reason it was often inscribed in one or more circles, figure of the totality of creation.

A daffodil

A moving image

The symbol spread during the Classic and Roman age. It assumed the connotation of a decorative symbol, especially inside most complex mosaic representation systems. Reconstructing the story of this symbol means discovering an image in a constant cultural movement. Hence, it is not surprising that the symbol was represented in the palaces of the Assyrian kings, becoming also so popular during the imperial age. In this domestic context, it assumed an apotropaic or good wishes value. The Flower of life was placed as a guarantee of the existence: as the sun rose every day and the narcissus bloomed in spring, so would be the life of the tenants of the domus.

Christian reinterpretation of the Flower of life

With the affirmation of Christianity, since the early-Christian period, and markedly in the Lombard one, the concept of rebirth was redefined in the Christological sense. It was Christ, the real image and personification of life which defeats death. In this sense, the Flower of life assumed the symbologic meaning of man resurrection, who could gain the eternal life by the saving work of Christ.

Flower of life
Representation of the Flower of life in the church of San Pietro in Gemonio

However, the Middle Age was the period of greatest expansion of the symbol, since it was used in several cult buildings across the Europe, probably thanks to some Jerusalemites orders, like the Knights Templar. For instance, it is attested the presence of the Flower of life in the Templar church of San Bevignate in Perugia. At the same time, the symbol is present, as decorative element, on the facade of the church of San Pietro di Sorres in Borutta.

Flower of life
Volterra (PI), Secondary entrance door of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, to be noted the two Flower of Life on the sides of a Templar Cross Pattée

The geometry of the symbol continued to fascinate distinguished scientists and educated men of the subsequent periods. They found the perfection of forms and a universal harmony on the symbol. Among them, the studies by Leonardo da Vinci, reported in the Codex Atlanticus of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana of Milan.


Samuele Corrente Naso

(Translation by Daniela Campus)

Notes

[1] Drunvalo Melchizedek, The Ancient Secret of the Flower of Life, 1999.

[2] G.N. Kurochkin, Archeological search for the Near Eastern Aryans and the royal cemetery of Marlik in northern Iran, Annales Academiae Scientiarum Fennicae

[3] A History of Art in Chaldæa and Assyria, Georges Perrot, Charles Chipiez, London, 1884.

[fig.1] By Marko Manninen – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34386315

[fig.2] Di Marko Manninen – Opera propria, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34386314

[fig.3] By Froaringus – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12389381

[fig. 4] By Jl FilpoC – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75183801

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