With a recorded history that dates back thousands of years, it’s not surprising that even the mythology surrounding the origin of the peony has multiple versions.
I love to draw peonies in my paintings as they inspire me to bring out the light, the feminine, and the mystery in my paintings. I often add “a bit of peony” into a painting that depicts more solid, grave, solid looks, and I see how it suddenly comes alive and brings out even more emotion to the viewer.
The peony has a great deal of meaning. It symbolizes prosperity, good fortune, and happiness, honor, compassion, and is used to encourage a happy marriage. It can even represent bashfulness!
There are two common myths about peonies. In one, the peony is believed to be named after Paeon, the Greek physician of the gods. According to the legend, Paeon was a student of Aesculapius, the god of medicine. When Paeon used a peony root to heal Pluto — the first time this was tried — Aesculapius became jealous of his talents and tried to kill him. To save Paeon (and show compassion to him), Pluto transformed him into a peony, because he knew it was a flower that people would admire and praise. Thus, one peony meaning is compassion.
In the other myth, the peony is tied to a nymph named Paeonia. Paeonia is beautiful and attracts the attention of Apollo, who begins to flirt with her. When Paeonia realizes that Aphrodite is watching them, she becomes bashful and turns bright red. In anger, Aphrodite transforms the nymph into a red peony. This is how the peony came to symbolize bashfulness.
Like the first myth shows, peonies were valued for their medicinal uses. In ancient and medieval times their roots and seeds were believed to cure over twenty diseases including epilepsy and snake bites. In England, children wore peony root necklaces to prevent seizures and help teething pain.
Chinese people believe peonies bring good luck and also consider it a symbol of friendship and feminine beauty.
In Japan, peonies symbolize wealth, honor, good fortune, masculinity, and bravery. In Europe, these flowers are widely cultivated for fragrances and their power of beautifying every place they are seen in.