At the beginning of Plato’s Republic, specifically at 328b-c, the elderly Cephalus is wearing a wreath upon his head because he had just finished offering divine sacrifices in the courtyard. In addition to generic ritual wreaths, ones that use specific materials — laurel, bay, rosemary, olive, oak, and so on — have been used for millennia to mark people of distinction in sacred ceremonies, and in conjunction with garlands, they have also marked animals who carry sacrifice or are to be sacrificed. Wreaths have also blessed and protected homes and the rooms within them.
My memories of flower crowns have shaped how I view them today. When I was a girl, in the warmer months of the year, we’d arrive at Circle a few hours before sunset. As people gathered, we would go to the bins of wildflowers collected from the property of the couple who hosted ritual and who acted as our de facto priest and priestess until my mid-teens when others started collaborating to facilitate ritual.
We had so many flowers — the yellow ones with the thin petals and tough stems, the delicately-stemmed light purple ones, the white ones — and we would weave the long stalks together until they made circles and reinforce them to stay using ribbons. We wore them for hours, sometimes the entire night between the ritual and the potluck and the drumming, and my family took ours home to keep for a few days until the flowers faded. Perhaps we burned them in the post-ritual bonfire on occasion. Very rarely, when the weather worked out just right and mold didn’t set in, we dried them and kept them.
Much of the evidence used for wreaths in antiquity comes from Greece and Rome, and this is the line of cultural transmission into modern times that one will see most often cited in places like the Getty or on the (ubiquitous) History of Flower Crowns pages on many vendor web sites. It is possible, and in fact highly logical, that the adoption of Hellenic and Roman uses of head wreaths was adapted to preexisting local customs.
The blog at the Getty leads with the text, “The flower crown is today a fashionable accessory synonymous with Coachella revelers and boho brides, but it’s not new: wearing leaves and flowers as a headpiece has a rich history dating back to the ancient classical world.” A recent post by Autostraddle said something in passing about reclaiming flower crowns as queer culture. In my personal lived experience — and, disclaimer, I thought Coachella was a handbag brand until I was something like twenty-nine or thirty — I have only used head wreaths at Neopagan religious events and the occasional wedding. All of the weddings were heterosexual. The Neopagan events were religious rituals, so they focused on the Gods, the turning of the seasons, and the coming together in human celebration — not us as individuals. (Technically, the flower crown I was wearing was on the head of a deeply closeted lesbian teen, but that didn’t matter in a ritual context.)
However, I can see where the Getty blog gets the Coachella thing from. Now that I have a private Instagram, I have seen many lookbook-style photographs of young women in flower crowns. When I was looking up some terminology for this short piece, the Google Images previews showed more of them interspersed with wedding advertisements and contact information for flower arrangers.
When my youngest sister’s wedding happened in 2018, I had not made a flower crown in over a decade. They had not been part of the Neopagan rituals in college, and after moving back East and away from Missouri, it just wasn’t something that was done at many of the rituals. I felt homesick for the rituals of my childhood as I wove the flowers together. My hands knew how to make the garland stable even if the rest of me had forgotten how.
One of the reasons I love reading old etiquette books is that they have such clarity in how to communicate socially via choices in clothing, accessories, and gesture. I do mourn the loss of that language sometimes even though I know the social complexity of how these etiquette books were produced is anything but innocent.
In the context of the flower crown, or the garlanded head, there is obvious object polysemy at play. The crowns I have worn and woven have all been for celebrating something special — human and divine — and to mark a distinction between the mundane and celebratory space. They are so bound up with my memories of ritual that I don’t know if I could ever consider them truly secular. The commodification of the flower crown becomes a mismatch of signifier and signified, crossed wires that rudely separate the subculture I grew up in from American culture at large. Flower crowns are not something I would wear as an Instagram aesthetic. I would never wear a verdant crown of laurel or olive unless someone else had crowned me. Above all, ritual attire is not something I would show unless I was trying to demonstrate to people in photos what it looks like (today, often white, typically natural-fiber; when I was young and practiced mainstream Neopaganism, ritual attire was brightly-colored clothes with Celtic knotwork on it, often with dark-colored cloaks in winter) and why you change out of it when it’s not time to do ritual via commentary in the accompanying text.
(There’s also some social commentary that can be done here, I think, about Instagram’s infringement on “special” moments and sacred spaces given the recent high-profile news articles about how Instagram hot spots are suffering under the footsteps of millions of amateur photographers who are destroying picturesque neighborhoods and natural places, even causing problems for temples in many parts of the world. You already know that I dislike social media, so I won’t get into this.)
I think that, for an etiquette of flower crowns — and for ritual markers in general — it matters to be mindful of these differences and to make an effort to keep the sacral intact in our own use of symbols and symbolic attire. We can educate others about why it matters that we keep some things in our lives precious and prized, and we can work to make that object polysemy a lived reality instead of a cluster of assumptions.