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Why is a rosary called a rosary?

A rosary is a set of prayer beads used by Catholics to count prayers and meditations during recitation of the rosary. The word “rosary” comes from Latin “rosarium” meaning “rose garden” or “garland of roses”. There are a few theories about why this term was used for the prayer beads:

The Rose Symbolism

One reason is due to the rose symbolism associated with the Virgin Mary. The rose has been a symbol of Mary since the Middle Ages, and rosary devotions are centered around events in the lives of Jesus and Mary. The prayers meditate on different mysteries from their lives, with each mystery represented by a different bead on the rosary. So the string of beads that aids in counting these prayers may have been viewed as a symbolic garland of roses for Mary.

The Circle Shape

Another theory has to do with the circular shape of the rosary. In Latin, “rosarium” can also refer to a circular herb garden planted around a fountain. The beads are strung in a circle and used to facilitate circular, repetitive prayer. So the circular nature of the rosary beads may have inspired the name.

Rose Incense

It’s also possible the name comes from the rose incense used in early Christian liturgical ceremonies. Incense made from rose petals was commonly used to sanctify and purify places of worship. As the rosary gained prominence in religious practice, the name may have been inspired by this popular incense.

Rose Pilgrimages

In the Middle Ages, Catholics would go on pilgrimages to rose gardens. They would pick roses as offerings to Mary. The circular garlands they created out of roses were akin to rosaries. This is one of the more commonly cited origins of the rosary name – that it is rooted in the rose garlands pilgrims wore and presented on their journeys to rose gardens.

The Rosy Cross

Some historians link the term “rosary” to the Rosy Cross. The Rosy Cross was a symbol used in early Christian iconography and occult circles. It consisted of a cross with a rose at its center. The rose was seen as a symbol of divine unfoldment. In esoteric Christianity, the rosary represented inner transformation and enlightenment through prayer. This occult use of the rosary may have popularized the name “rosary” for prayer bead garlands.

Roses for the Virgin

Folklore has it that during the life of the Virgin Mary, she would find roses blooming in winter wherever she went. After her assumption into heaven, devotees would lay roses at her shrines and say 150 prayers – an early predecessor of the rosary. Offering 150 roses and 150 prayers led to the prayer strings being dubbed “rosaries” or “rose garlands.”

Development of the Rosary

While there are a few origin theories for the name, historians generally agree on the evolution of the physical rosary itself:

  • In the 9th century, Irish monks recited and counted prayers using knotted ropes.
  • By the 12th century, strings of beads were being used to keep track of 150 prayers – 150 being connected to the 150 Psalms.
  • In the 13th century, Alan de Rupe helped popularize the practice of praying 150 Ave Marias on bead strings.
  • In the 15th century, rosary meditations on the life of Jesus were instituted, structured around four sets of mysteries.
  • In the 16th century, the modern rosary with five decades of beads took shape.

So while the physical form of the rosary evolved over several centuries, the name may have origins in medieval spirituality, rose symbolism, and garlands presented to the Virgin Mary.

The Power of the Rosary

Despite some uncertainty around its origins, the rosary remains an important symbol and prayer tool for Catholics worldwide. Many believe the rosary is powerful against evil, as supported by the following church-recognized Marian apparition:

In 1571, Pope Pius V led a rosary prayer campaign before Christian forces battled the Ottoman Turks at Lepanto. The heavily outnumbered Christians miraculously won the battle, which Pius V attributed to the power of the rosary. This led him to institute the Feast of Our Lady of Victory, now known as the Feast of the Holy Rosary.

Meaning Behind the Rosary Beads

While the exact roots of the name “rosary” may never be known, the meaning behind the physical beads is much clearer:

  • There are 59 beads total: Crucifix, 5 sets of 10 beads (decades), and 6 single beads.
  • Each decade is separated by a single bead, representing the Lord’s Prayer.
  • The crucifix represents the Apostles’ Creed and begins and ends the loop.
  • The decades are used to count the Hail Mary prayers.
  • In total, the loop facilitates reciting 150 Hail Marys in sets of 10.

So the structure of five decades separated helps pray specific repeating prayers for meditation on the mysteries of faith.


While the exact etymology is unclear, theories point to the rosary name referring to rose symbolism, garlands, incense, or occult roots based around a 150 prayer devotion. Regardless of the origins, the physical rosary of 59 beads provides a tangible tool to facilitate focused prayer while meditating on the lives of Jesus and Mary. The name rose to prominence along with the spread of the rosary itself, as it became an important ritual object and art form representing Catholic devotion for centuries.