Symbolism

CYCLAMEN was taken as the symbol of voluptuousness (Haig), for it had the reputation since ancient times of being an aphrodisiac, however unlikely that sounds. CUCKOO-PINT is another matter. Friend said that it is the symbol of zeal and ardour. It was probably his way of giving some respectability to the subject, for to the common people the very form of this plant, the spadix in the spathe, stood for copulation. That is the reason for the many male + female names given to it, and the sexual overtones of many of the rest. ELDER too is a symbol of zeal, according to the ideas of Raban Maur (Haig), though doubtless not with the same undertones. HAWTHORN too became a symbol of carnal love as opposed to spiritual love. It is the arbor cupidatitis, used as such throughout the literature of the Middle Ages. The symbolism probably arose from the scent, the trimethylamine of which causes the smell of putrefaction. But the scent has this other interpretation as well - that of sex. The smell was said to arouse sexual desire (Anderson), and the tree itself was used constantly in medieval love allegory. The Chaste Tree (Vitex agnus-castus) was used by Athenian women as a symbol of chastity in religious rites. For that reason it also became the symbol of indifference. There is a suggestion that the leaves may be contraceptive; certainly Dioscorides said so, and Pomet's comment on the name agnus-castus is equally explicit: "and the name of Agnus Castus, because the Athenian ladies who were willing to preserve their chastity ... made their beds of the Leaves of this Shrub, on which they lay: But it is by way of ridicule that the Name of Agnus Castus is now given to this seed, since it is commonly made use of in the care of venereal cases, or to assist those who have violated, instead of preserv'd their Chastity". Another symbol of chastity is provided by SWEET CHESTNUT - the husk is surrounded by thorns, hence the imagery (Ferguson). But in some parts, chestnuts are regarded as female fertility symbols (Alford. 1978).

FIGS, like POMEGRANATE, carry a large number of seeds, and so they are both symbols of fertility. Doubly so, in the case of figs, for it is pointed out that it resembles the womb in shape (Maple). The association stems from classical times, but it has been carried over into more recent folklore. Bulgarian brides, for example, used to be presented with dried figs as a promise of many children (M Baker), and Dutch folk medicine claims that a craving for figs during pregnancy ensures that the child will be born quickly and easily (van Andel). At wedding ceremonies in Rhodes, a pomegranate was put on the threshold, to be crushed by the bridegroom's foot as he entered (Rodd), an obvious piece of symbolism. In a Persian story, Khodaded was one of fifty children begotten by a childless nomad upon his fifty wives, after eating as many pomegranate seeds. ALMONDS, too, carry a similar symbolism of fertility. Pink almond blossom would be heaped at a gypsy bride's wedding in Spain. An almond tree, so it is said in Greece, will always bear fruit well near the home of a bride, and almond paste usually appears on wedding cakes (M Baker. 1977). Almonds are equally prominent at Indian weddings, where they may indicate both prosperity and children, i.e., money fertility and sexual fertility. (A secondary view of almond symbolism is that of hope, for this is an extremely early flowering tree, and hope is needed if the tree blooms in January, as it often does, for a subsequent frost will ensure that there will be no crop). SILVER FIR, sacred in Greece to Artemis, the moon-goddess who presided over childbirth (Graves), would also be a symbol of fertility. In some parts of Germany, women were struck with a small fir-tree at Shrovetide, and brides and bridegrooms often carried fir branches with lighted tapers. Firs were often planted before a house when a wedding took place. BIRCH, too, was a symbol of fertility. Saplings were put in houses and stables, and men and women, as well as the cattle, were struck with birch twigs, with the avowed intention of increasing fertility (Elliott). HAZEL was yet another tree with this symbolism, even more powerfully than the others. Throwing nuts at the bride and groom is sometimes the practice at Greek weddings, and until quite recently, Devonshire brides were given little bags of hazel nuts as they left the church (see also WEDDINGS). PINE cones had some phallic significance in ancient times, so they were also symbols of fertility. It is interesting to record a superstition from the Highlands of Scotland to the effect that a lot of illegitimate births could be blamed on the large number of pine trees growing in the district (Begg). WALNUTS were the symbol of marriage, according to Pliny. Sexual magic was performed with them. Arnold de Villeneuve gave a receipt for "tying the knot". One takes a walnut, separates the two halves, and puts them in the marriage bed. The counter charm is to stick the two halves together, crack the nut, and then the couple eat it (Bouisson). It is because they are of two halves that the marriage symbolism exists. The tree remained a bridegroom's symbol in Germany until Evelyn's time.

ASPEN symbolizes fear, from the constant shivering of its leaves, but it is also the symbol of scandal, by a different interpretation of the same characteristic, for an old saying tells that its leaves were made of women's tongues. Gerard knew the saying - " ... it is the matter whereof womens tongues were made ... which seldome cease wagging". OAK is the symbol of hospitality, Zeus's tree and his emblem, the tree that had sheltered him at his birth on Mount Lycaeus. One of the earliest references to the tree (possibly Quercus pseudo-coccifera) is the story of Abraham's hospitable entertainment of the angels, given under the oak of Mamre (Bayley).

GARLIC, in Bologna, was the symbol of abundance. The abundance was reckoned material, for it used to be bought at the Midsummer festival as a charm against poverty during the coming year. But the closely related LEEKS were taken as the symbol of humility, for they have always been rather looked down upon, in spite of an Irish legend that they were created by St Patrick (Swahn). Certainly in the Orie nt the vegetable has always been seen as the food of the poor, hence this symbolism, which is shared by VIOLETS (as such it would be the emblem of Christ on earth). BIRCH, too, was a symbol of meekness (Leyel), "as bare as the birch at Yule Eve"

is a proverb used once of anyone in extreme poverty (Denham).

NETTLE is a symbol of envy (Haig), and of spitefulness (Leyel. 1937), while MONKSHOOD, not surprisingly, given its extremely poisonous nature, is the symbol of crime (Rambosson). ROSES have been used as the symbol of many things, love, mainly, but also of silence, and also of secrecy. Silence, is an idea still with us in the expression sub rosa. It is said that many of the great houses with plaster ceilings had a rose as the central ornament, a reminder that matters talked of at table "under the rose" must not be repeated outside that room. But "under the rose" had another meaning. To be born "under the rose" is said to mean being illegitimate, a rose also being a symbol of secrecy, so the wild rose is sometimes used to signify illicit love (Briggs. 1974).

HONEYSUCKLE is a symbol of constancy, presumably because of its twining habit (Tynan & Maitland), and MUGWORT symbolises happiness and tranquillity, as does the PEAR for affection and comfort (Leyel. 1937). The MADONNA LILY is the symbol of purity (Haig), chastity (also Haig) (it will only grow for "a good woman" (M Baker. 1977), of beauty (Zohary), and celestial bliss (Woodcock & Stearn), for to early medieval artists and theologians this was the flower of heaven. But of course, this lily is the emblem of the Virgin Mary, so the symbolism stems from that. PARSLEY seems to have been a symbol of festivity, though quite why is not clear. To the Greeks it also symbolised strength, and they crowned the winners of the Isthmian Games with chaplets made of it. FENNEL, too, is a symbol of strength, and also of flattery (Dyer). The Italian idiom 'dare finocchio' means to flatter (Northcote). SWEET CICELY represents the opposite, sincerity, while LETTUCE is the emblem of temperance, according to the ideas of Raban Maur (Haig). Why should MEADOWSWEET be stigmatized as the symbol of uselessness? It is far from true. Equally odd is Shakespeare's use of BLACKBERRIES as symbols of worthlessness, though the way it grows makes it an emblem of lowliness. Yet another of its symbolic attributions is that of remorse, from the "fierceness with which it grips the passer-by" (Dyer. 1889). In Christian symbolism it stands for the purity of the Virgin Mary, who "bore the flames of divine love without being consumed by lust" (Ferguson).

BALSAMINT symbolises impatience (Leyel. 1937), while VERVAIN was the very symbol of enchantment, not surprisingly when the reputation of that plant is recalled. WHITE POPLAR, with its leaves that are white on the undersides, and blackish-green above, symbolises time, for those leaves show the alternation between night and day. That and the fact that they always seem to be in motion, were enough to excite somebody's imagination into inaugurating this symbolism. Hope is symbolised by HOPS (a garland of them was worn by suitors in Elizabethan times), and also by WILD THYME (Quennell), as well as activity, and courage. Those who eat it are said to become braver, and in the Middle Ages, a sprig of thyme was given to knights by their ladies, to keep up their courage. Even a scarf embroidered with a bee alighting on the plant was supposed to have the same effect (Leyel. 1937). Watercress is the symbol of stability, and also of power (Leyel. 1937). RUE is the symbol of regret and repentance; to rue is to be sorry for, even though the two words have different derivations (see RUE).

Evergreen trees are at the same time funerary emblems and symbols of immortality (see for instance HOLM OAK, or YEW). EDELWEISS also has this symbolism (Folkard).

MYRTLE'S symbolism is complicated. The Greeks used it for love and for immortality (it is evergreen). Throughout the Scriptures, it is the symbol of divine generosity, and also of peace and joy, and of justice. It was held to have the power of creating and perpetuating love (Philpot), and as such was a symbol also of married bliss (Baker. 1980). But on the other hand, myrtle was a symbol of death, and of war (Gordon. 1977).

Abundance Affection

Amiability

Anticipation

Bashfulness

Betrayal

Charity

Chastity

Compassion

Coquetry

Courage

Courtesy Death

OLIVE, in ancient Greece BURNET SAXIFRAGE (Leyel. 1937)

JASMINE (Ferguson) GOOSEBERRY (Leyel. 1937) PEONY. Why? It was claimed to be of divine origin JUDAS TREE, naturally, if Judas was supposed to have hanged himself on this tree

1. WHITE WATERLILY, according to the ideas of Raban Maur (Haig)

2. SAFFRON, according to the system of Raban Maur (Haig)

3. ORIENTAL PLANE (Platanus orientalis), in Christian art (Ferguson)

SWEET BRIAR, which was sometimes painted in portraits of ladies of the Elizabethan period ALLSPICE (Leyel. 1937) LADY LAUREL (Ingram) BAMBOO, in Japanese symbolism (J Piggott) PINK

1. CYPRESS. Both Greeks and Romans called it the "mournful tree", because it was sacred to the rulers of the underworld.

Divine love Domesticity

Egotism

Elegance Encouragement Energy in adversity

Excellence

Extravagance

Falsehood

Fascination Fertility

It was planted by a grave, and, when a death occurred, it was the custom to put it in front of the house so that those about to perform a sacred rite would be warned against entering a house polluted by a dead body. And of course, coffins were made of cypress wood (if you were rich enough), the wood being incorruptible (and insect proof) 2. POPPY ANEMONE, for the myth has it that the plant originated at the death of Adonis, who was changed into the plant according to one version, or that it sprang from the mixture of his blood and the tears of Venus (Rambosson). It is also the symbol of sorrow PINK

HOUSELEEK, probably because a growing plant in the thatch brought luck and order to the house NARCISSUS. The story of Narcissus, enamoured of his own beauty, becoming spell-bound in front of his own image, is too well-known for comment JASMINE GOLDEN ROD CAMOMILE, perhaps from the truism that "the more it is trodden, the faster it grows" PERIWINKLE, as in an old ballad, in which a noble lady is called "the parwenke of proesse" OPIUM POPPY, in Christian art (Ferguson). Presumably from the great number of its seeds ALKANET, for its roots, for making rouge, seem to be one of the most ancient of face cosmetics CARNATION

QUINCE, which was dedicated to Venus, who is often represented holding one in her right hand (Ellacombe). Sending quinces as presents, or eating them together, were recognized love tokens; so was throwing them at each other. In 17th century England, it was reckoned that "the woman with child that eateth many during the time of her breeding shall bring forth wise children and of good understanding" (Boland. 1977)

Fidelity

Fidelity in misfortune

Forsaken love

Foresight

Friendship

Frugality

Genius

Goodwill

Grace Grief

Happiness Hatred

Health

1. BROOKLIME (Leyel. 1937)

3. PLUM, in Christian art Hidden worth (Ferguson) Humility

WALLFLOWER (Friend. 1883), perhaps suggested by the legend of the Scottish girl who was in love with the heir to a rival clan. She Ignorance was planning to escape with him, by climbing from a high window Imbecility to join him, "but the silken cord untied; she fell, and bruised, and there she died", and was turned into "the scented flower upon the wall" Immortality

WILLOW. See Shakespeare: Much ado about nothing, when Benedick says "I offered him my company to a willow-tree, either to make him a garland, as being forsaken, or to bind him up a rod, as worthy to be whipped" STRAWBERRY (Leyel. 1937), though the usual symbolism is Righteousness PERIWINKLE CHICORY (Leyel. 1937) ORIENTAL PLANE (Platanus orientalis), for it is said that philosophers taught beneath this tree, and so it acquired a reputation as a seat of learning (Dyer. 1889)

GREEN PURSLANE, in West Africa (Dalziel) JASMINE

1. WILLOW, especially that of disappointed love

2. MARIGOLD, though it seems odd for such a popular flower. Perhaps there is some connection with a rather vague concept of its use at funerals

QUINCE

BASIL (Leyel. 1937). The Romans used to sow the seeds with curses through the belief that the more it was abused the better it might grow. The Greeks, too, supposed basil to thrive best when sown Patriotism with cursing - this explains the French saying "semer la basilic", Peace as signifying slander (Fernie). In Italian folklore, basil always stands for hatred

WORMWOOD, so famous a medicine for an enormous list of ills over the centuries, for

Innocence

Independence

Indifference

Longevity

Magnificence

Marriage Melancholy Modesty Mourning plague and cholera down to lesser ailments (Painter) CORIANDER (Leyel. 1937) BROOM (Friend. 1883), possibly only because of its use as a humble domestic implement. See also EMBLEMS (Housewife) OPIUM POPPY, in Christian art (Ferguson)

REED, probably for the same reason as led to the symbol of weakness (they are tossed about by the wind, and have to bow before a superior force (Grindon)

1. PEACH, in China, for it is Taoist emblem (Tun Li-Ch'en)

2. CYPRESS, for it is evergreen, a symbolism shared with most evergreens

3. PERIWINKLE, in Germany, for it is evergreen (Fernie)

DAISY, and thereby the emblem of the newly-born (Bayley. 1919), and so of the infant Christ

PLUM, in Christian art (Ferguson)

BLACK MUSTARD

BAMBOO, in Chinese and

Japanese systems. In the latter it also represents tenacity and courage ( J Piggott)

ORIENTAL PLANE (Platanus orientalis)

CARNATION

PRIMROSE

DAISY

1. BASIL, which in the eastern Mediterranean countries is a herb of grief, to be put on graves

2. WILLOW, used in some stylised form embossed on Victorian mourning cards, though they first appeared as such at the end of the 18th century as a tomb decoration, usually with the figure of Hope, or the widow weeping and clinging to an urn beneath its boughs

NASTURTIUM (Leyel. 1937) Why?

OLIVE, as it still is. Possibly because in the Noah's Ark story, the dove is said to have brought back an olive leaf as an indication that God's wrath, in the form of the Flood, was abating (the dove, too, carries this symbolism)

Pleasantry BEE BALM, because of its aromatic fragrance Precaution GOLDEN ROD

Pretension ROSEBAY WILLOWHERB, possibly because of the way it so quickly colonises areas cleared of vegetation by fire, etc. Cf the name Bombweed

Protection JUNIPER, for this was one of the plants that offered shelter to the Virgin and Child during the flight into Egypt. It naturally received the Virgin's blessing, and the power of putting to flight the spirits of evil. (see also PROTECTIVE PLANTS) Purity 1. CHRISTMAS ROSE - the result of its pure white flowers. It is also the emblem of St Agnes, the patroness of purity. Her feast day is 21 January, when the plant should be well in bloom (Hadfield & Hadfield)

2. LILY-OF-THE-VALLEY, partcularly in early Netherlandish and German paintings (Haig)

3. MADONNA LILY (Haig). This lily is the emblem of the Virgin Mary, so the symbolism stems from that

4. HINDU LOTUS, in Japanese thought. Buddha is often depicted as seated on a lotus

Rendezvous CHICKWEED (Leyel. 1937). Why?

Riches BUTTERCUP, obviously, from the golden coloured flowers Righteousness STRAWBERRY. The plant was used a great deal in paintings representing the garden of heaven, and the "enclosed garden" of the Virgin Mary. They are shown with fruit and flowers together, and in this way represent the good works of the righteous. It is the emblem of "the righteous men whose fruits are good works" (Haig). As such it was used chiefly in early Italian paintings of the Adoration. In these paintings, the symbolical strawberry is usually accompanied by the violet, as if to point out that the truly fruitful soul is always humble (Haig) Sadness WILLOW

Sleep OPIUM POPPY, for it is sedative, and the very emblem of Morpheus Sorrow 1. WILLOW

2. POPPY ANEMONE, from the myth of the death of Adonis, from which the plant sprang, and the sorrow of Venus, whose tears when mixed with the blood of Adonis produced the flower according to another version of the myth Surprise BETONY

Tenacity BAMBOO, in Japanese symbolism

(J Piggott)

Vengeance AFRICAN MAHOGANY, in

Yoruba belief. The tree may not be cut down unless the tree Spirit has first been propitiated by the offering of a fowl, or some palm wine (J P Lucas) Vivacity HOUSELEEK

Wantonness PRIMROSE, which was used as a love-charm in many places. Browne is talking about them when he says "maidens as a true-love in their bosoms place". Shakespeare has Hamlet say "himselftheprimrosepathofdalliancetreads" Weakness REED, for they are tossed about by thewind,bendingtoasuperiorforce(Ellacombe) Wisdom OLIVE, in ancient Greece

Symphoricarpus albus > SNOWBERRY

Symphytum asperum > PRICKLY COMFREY

Symphytum officinale > COMFREY

Syzygium aromaticum > CLOVE

Dealing With Sorrow

Dealing With Sorrow

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