I is for Ivy

Written by Kerry E.B. Black

“Romance and poetry, ivy, lichens, and wallflowers need ruin to make them grow,” said Nathaniel Hawthorne. Evergreen ivy represents fidelity, eternity, and strong affection. Thus ivy is used at weddings. Its hardy, adaptable nature and perennial life makes it a symbol for immortality. Ivy’s symbolism is both phallic and feminine. Ladies wore ivy to ensure fertility.

Christianity adopted ivy as a symbol for the Virgin Mary mother of Jesus. It has been a part of Christmas decorating since at least the fifteenth century, and the song “The Holly and the Ivy” is a perennial carol of the season. (The sharp holly leaves and red berries serve as reminders of Christ’s crown of thorns.) Sharp describes an older carol “The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly” which boasts such lines as, “Ivy and her maidens, they weep and they wring… ivy hath berries black as any sloe; there come the owl and eat him as she go… good ivy, what birds hast thou? None but the owlet that cries ‘how, how.’” Ivy’s need to cling to a structure for support reminds Christians to cling to God for support. Decorating with too much ivy, however, could invite bad fortune, so many people incorporate ivy with other plants when they adorn their halls. At the end of the season, rural revelers fed their ivy to cattle.

Because of is long strands, people have long twisted ivy into wreaths and headdresses. Greek priests presented a wreath of ivy to newly-weds. Crowns of ivy adorned the heads of conquerors and celebrated poets in ancient times. To wear such a crown granted the ability to recognize witches and those with magic. The Golden Ivy of Virgil is supposed to be the yellow-berried variety, Hedera Chrysocarpa.

Ivy grown upon the outside of buildings protected the structure from the entry of ill-intended guests. To dream of ivy portends friendship, happiness, good fortune, honor, wealth, and success. In Germany, folk beliefs see ivy tied to the outside of a church as protection from lightning. In fact, most decorating with ivy is left to the exterior of the dwelling. Bringing a gift of ivy was to invite bad luck into a home, and certainly, no ill person should be subjected to the plant. Signs featuring ivy hung above Old English taverns to advertise excellent liquor.

In the British Isles of old, some placed an ivy leaf into a bowl of water on New Year’s Eve. This leaf predicted the fate of the family for the upcoming year. If the leaf remained fresh and green, the family should anticipate good fortune. If, however, the leaf withered or developed black spots, they expected ill fortune and poor health.

In historic medical use, ivy helped expel jaundice and dropsy. The juice from its berries or leaves were stuffed up sick peoples’ noses to help with malfunctioning eyes, defects in breathing, and to dispel running sores. Gum found on thick ivy stocks killed nits and lice and removed unwanted hair. However, modern day practitioners caution against using ivy, as its effects can harm people. The plant is mentioned in Fuch’s 1543 Herbal.

Semele, mother of Bacchus, Greek god of wine and revelry, abandoned her son beneath an ivy vine. Thereby, ivy became a symbol of the god. Carrying the plant for a Bacchanal is mentioned in I Corinthians. Priests of Jupiter touched the plant, believing it could keep them from becoming intoxicated and grant prophetic powers. Modern Wiccans see ivy as a representation of the goddess.

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