Although it is a cruel story from the pen of the Roman poet Ovid, it shall nevertheless be told here: One day the goddess Diana was out hunting, but had no success and was accordingly in a bad mood. When she came across a shepherd playing his flute, she blamed him for scaring away the game, tore out both his eyes in anger and threw them to the ground. But she immediately regretted her deed and, as she could not undo it, she made carnations grow out of the eyes of the unfortunate man (hence the French name “oeillet”, meaning little eyes).
What is historically correct about this story is that the carnation was discovered and spread by Roman soldiers. A few centuries later, crusaders finally brought it to more northern climes, where it soon became popular as an ornamental plant and many positive properties were attributed to it. In the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance, it was considered a symbol of betrothal and marriage.
In the German-speaking world it was also called “Nägelin”, which is actually due to a confusion: Although the shape of its flower resembles the clove (which resembles nails when dried), botanically the two have nothing to do with each other. Nevertheless, the carnation thus became a symbol of the suffering of Christ, who was nailed to the cross with nails, as can be seen, for example, in Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “Madonna with Carnation” (the Christ child reaches for the carnation – a reference to his later death on the cross).
Even in later centuries, the carnation was always ascribed a high symbolic value (for example, nobles condemned during the French Revolution wore a red carnation on their way to the guillotine as a symbol of their attachment to royalty), until in the second half of the 20th century it was dismissed as “stuffy” and “petit bourgeois” and almost disappeared from the parlours of the middle classes. It is only in recent years that it has been celebrating something of a small renaissance and can once again be found in bouquets, flower arrangements and in people’s parlours.