Flower Crowns: Ancient & Modern

Cultural appropriation, according to this blog post.

Cultural appropriation, according to this blog post.

The interwebs are an ever-changing culture, and the blooming trends of today will have withered by next week. Nevertheless, the recent fad of Photoshopping “flower crowns” on popular figures from TV, film and other media has caught my eye.

It’s a consciously ironic way of claiming ownership of a cultural icon, expressing devotion while showing that you don’t take the object of adoration too seriously. Nevertheless, I see that it has deeper roots in—


Er… come again?


Oh, dear.

Do you mean to tell me that when students of Bryn Mawr College participate in our college’s one-hundred-year-plus May Day celebration, a fine old tradition imported (SEE!?! SEE?!!) from England, those wreaths we wear are actually Hawaiian?

President Mary Patterson McPhearson and members of BMC's senior class, May Day, 1990. (My photos)

President Mary Patterson McPhearson and members of BMC’s senior class wearing flower garlands, May Day, 1990. (My photos)


Morris Dancer at Oxford University May Day celebrations, © Matthias Rosenkranz, Creative Commons.

Photo by: Matthias Rosenkranz (CC)

Is the medieval English tradition of “Bringing in the May,” gathering flowers and weaving them into garlands to wear, Hawaiian, too? (Left: Morris Dancer in Oxford, England.)

And when Catholics honored the Virgin Mary by adapting the old May Day tradition of crowning the May Queen, which this traditional hymn commemorates—

O Mary we crown thee with blossoms today!
Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May.
O Mary we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May.

— were they unwittingly borrowing a tradition from a far-away island?

How about  First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln?

Mary Todd Lincoln cropped

And the ancient Greeks and Romans, not to mention the Minoans?

But you, O Dika, wreathe lovely garlands in your hair,

Weave shoots of dill together, with slender hands,

For the Graces prefer those who are wearing flowers,

And turn away from those who go uncrowned. — Sappho, c. 600 BCE

(The ancient Greek word for garland/flower crown is Στέφανος, by the way, giving us the modern names Stephen, Steve and Stephanie.)

Antinous Pio-Clementino Inv256 n8
Antinoous, Roman emperor Hadrian’s boyfriend, photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC.

Amazing! I had no idea that the ancient Sumerian Queen Pu’abi and the slightly-less-ancient Assyrians buried at Nimrud were actually Hawaiian flower-crown wearers, despite predating the first human settlements in Hawaii by some 3000 years to 1500 years, respectively!

It gets better. The kanzashi tradition of Japan, which dates back thousands of years, also predates Hawaii. In this case, different flowers are used at different times of the year, and may ward off evil spirits or celebrate love and the arrival of spring (which is roughly the meaning of medieval May Day crowns).


Kanzashi, photographed by Joe Baz, Creative Commons License.

In the New World we find an Atzec goddess, Xochiquetzal, whose name means “flower feathers,” since she (and her worshipers) wore a wreath of flowers and feathers in her hair:

Sure enough, she’s the goddess of love, spring and flowers: the maiden-archetype is often associated with flowers and flower-wearing.

I could belabor the point, that flower crowns appear in many traditions around the world, but this commenter to the original “cultural appropriation” blog post said it best:

“…as someone who HATES cultural appropriation, can I just say

are you ****** kidding

You realize that by stomping your feet about something that isn’t actually cultural appropriation, that you do damage to actual attempts to stop cultural appropriation, right?”

Asha, who cites a 1945 photo of her Yugoslavian grandmother wearing a flower crown for her wedding.

Well said.

However, that’s actually not the point I want to make. This Mythphile blog is about the intersection of mythology, psychology, and modern culture. When I see fans  Photoshopping flower crowns onto images of their favorite fandom icons, I see an innocent echo of a very old tradition.

Since ancient times, people around the world have worn flower crowns for communal ceremonies, sacred rites like weddings, festivals in which worshipers embody the May Queen or Xochiquetzal or Persephone.

However, there’s another way in which garlands are used: to decorate sacred statues. I’m most familiar with this practice in Greek, Roman and Hindu traditions, but the more I look at traditions around the world, the more examples I see of cult objects being spruced up with garlands (sometimes as crowns, sometimes as collars).


An image or statue is not alive. Yet it represents something alive, numinous. That’s why worshipers often gift their icons with that natural symbol of life, flowers. It’s both a gift of life and a way of imbuing an inert image with life-energy.

Many modern mythographers have observed that with the breakdown of monocultures — self-contained societies united by shared myths, religions and customs that helped affirm and inspire their communal identity — modern people instinctively reach for stories in popular media from Star Wars to Spirited Away to provide meaningful symbols, stories and characters. The struggling folk hero rings true for us, even if it’s Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen.

No wonder fans feel the urge to crown their fan totems with virtual garlands. An age-old impulse has reappeared in a playful, digital form.

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One Response

  1. Ann Brundige says:

    The impulse to use flowers may go back even further. A Neanderthal burial in Shanidar Cave in Iraq has a thick layer of pollen beneath at least one of the skeletons. Some researchers have suggested that the many flower heads could have been brought in by a small animal. If so, it was very choosy, as five of the six flower types are used medicinally. I personally think it is just as likely that the flowers are there to honor the dead, not exactly a flower crown but similar in meaning.

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