The holly and the ivy (part two)

So, I sat down to write a post about holly and ivy… And then realised I did that last year… In my defence, I was very ill and very starved so my memories of that period are a bit vague…

That being said, I have got new books and new sources and so on since so I thought I would revisit this seasonal topic anyway, possibly focusing more on the mistletoe instead.

Holly

Holly is a plant of lightening, eternal life and the White Goddess (before it was co-opted by Christianity).  The berries, being scarlet, could be used to repel witches and Pliny the Elder went a step further and said that holly trees around the house prevent sorcery.  Self seeded holly plants would bring good luck as well as protection from storms and fires.

There are two kinds of holly, the male prickly version and the female smoother type, and according to a Derbyshire tradition, they should be brought into the home at the same time.  This would ensure that the year ahead would be prosperous.  If you accidentally brought the male holly in first, the master of the house would have absolute rule in the year ahead and if you brought the female holly in first then the mistress would be in charge.  Despite this, there is also a tradition that says that holly shouldn’t be brought indoors at all.

Whether you decorate your house with holly or not, you shouldn’t harm a holly tree.  One explanation is that holly was the tree on which Jesus was crucified and so hurting the tree would lead to his blood and tears flowing out of the wound.  Another is that holly sprang from Christ’s footsteps.  Holly is also said to be representative of his crown of thorns, the red berries his blood and the white flowers a reminder of purity and his virgin birth.

Ivy

Like holly, ivy has a mixed reputation.  During the 19th and 20th century, some people considered it unlucky and wouldn’t bring it into the house at any point in the year, possibly because ivy is associated with graveyards.

“Anyone who wishes to dream of the devil; should pin four ivy-leaves to the corners of his pillow”
– Cornish Folklore, The Penguin Guide to Superstitions of Britain and Ireland

Other uses for ivy in divination include popping a leaf in your pocket before you leave the home and the first male you see will be your future husband.  Ivy can also be used to foretell death.

Ivy leaves have been recommended as a cure for various ills including corns which could be treated by wrapping the leaf around the corn.  Cups made out of ivy wood were thought to cure whooping cough.

Ivy was said to be sacred to Dionysus and Bacchus, gods of wine, and thus was hung outside inns to show that good wine could be found there.

“In ancient Greece it was called cissos because, according to a mythological legend it was named after the nymph Cissos, who, at a feast of the gods, danced with such joy and abandon before Dionysus that she fell dead from exhaustion at his feet.  Dionysus was so moved by her performance and untimely death, that he turned her body into ivy, a plant which graciously and joyfully entwines and embraces everything near it.”
– Folklore and Symbolism of flowers, Plants and Trees

Ivy growing on a home would protect the inhabitants from witchcraft although if it starts to wither, watch out for disaster, infertility, infidelity or financial problems.

Ivy has become associated with love and fertility, possibly as it clings to all it touches…

Mistletoe

And talking of love… I don’t mean to put you off kissing under the mistletoe but…

The toe of mistletoe meant twig and mistel may be connected to the Germanic word for dung… Possibly because a common belief was that mistletoe didn’t grow from seeds but instead was the result of bird droppings, because it only grows high in trees and never on the ground.

In Scandinavia, we have stories of the gods and the much loved Balder began to have nightmares.  In order to try and ease his fears, his mum, Frigg, stepped in:

“Goddess Frigg made all swear never to harm Balder the god of light, but she overlooked the insignificant mistletoe plant, deeming it too young to swear the oath.  Loki, spirit of evil, gave a mistletoe dart to Hod, the blind god, who, unseeing, threw it and killed Balder.”
– Discovering the Folklore of Plants

The idea of kissing under mistletoe in Britain at Christmas was first reported in 1813 and may well be the result of misunderstanding that dates back to Pliny the Elder in AD77…  With this in mind I’m not going to look at the idea that it has links with paganism and druidy, this is covered in detail elsewhere and may be part of convoluted information initiated by Pliny…  That said, one article I read (I accidentally deleted the link) suggested the shape of mistletoe was reflective of a certain piece of anatomy and thus might be the reason for the link with sexuality and love…

In terms of superstitions and traditions, there are limited associations beyond kissing, however:

“It is considered very unlucky for a house unless some mistletoe is brought in at Christmas.”
– Derbyshire tradition recorded 1871

“If you want to have extra good luck to your dairy, give your bunch of mistletoe to the first cow that calves after New Year’s Day.”
– Yorkshire tradition recorded 1866

“If you hang up mistletoe at Christmas, your house will never be struck by lightening.”
– Staffordshire tradition recorded 1891

In Herefordshire, mistletoe was thought to be associated with dark magic and wouldn’t have been taken into the home lightly or used to encourage kissing.  So think carefully the next time you find yourself under a sprig with someone else…

Resources:

  • The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland
  • Discovering the Folklore of Plants, Margaret Baker
  • Folklore and Symbolism of flowers, Plants and Trees, Ernst and Johanna Lehner
  • Folklore Thursday

The holly and the ivy

This month, looking at plants, is nearly at a close but before we head into December, I thought it would be timely to consider plants and Christmas.  I’m not especially into Christmas but there is a lot of tradition surrounding it which can be interesting.  Also, I’ve not yet looked at holly or ivy in my plant spirit posts and was already planning to, so this will kill two plants with one blog post as it were.

According to the telegraph, the song relates to ancient fertility mythology and the association of the male with holly and good and the female with ivy and evil.

Holly

Holly is a broad leaved, evergreen which is found in most of Europe.  In Britain, it tends to grow as an understory beneath oaks.

Holly is well known for it’s spines which are obviously there to deter predators, and less sharp leaves can be found higher up the plant.  For those intrepid herbivores who still take a bite, the leaves contain bitter tasting alkaloids.

It is a slow growing plant which can live for 250-300 years which has become iconic at Christmas time.  It’s wavy edged leaves and prickly spines, glossy and rich green take a long time to decay.  This may be one aspect of the holly’s nature which has contributed to it’s association with eternal life, with it’s evergreen demeanour being another.  In the midst of winter, when all is dark and cold, the holly continues to rule with dignity, facing the challenging weather head on.

Holly is considered masculine to the ivy which is feminine, possibly because the holly is spiky and defensive where the ivy is more graceful?  Interestingly, the nature of the holly brought into the house is supposed to determine or predict whether the house will be ruled by man or woman in the coming year.  The smooth edged type signalling a woman’s rule. Another tradition says the same but for holly and ivy, with the plant first brought into the house marking the future year.

Holly was planted near homes as it was said to protect against lightning strikes.  As with the oak, it is said to be associated with thunder and hence Thor.  Bringing twigs into the house wards off evil spirits, which I imagine are particularly active in the dark nights of winter.  Another seasonal link is found with the holly king who rules the year from mid summer to mid winter, when the oak king takes over.

Whilst the tradition of bringing holly into the house goes back much further, Christianity has appropriated it as a representation of Jesus.  Holly is said to be representative of his crown of thorns, the red berries his blood and the white flowers a reminder of purity and his virgin birth.

Ivy

Ivy is another evergreen plant and also represents eternity.  It can grow in difficult environments and climbs upwards, using other plants, to reach the sunlight.  Given enough time, they can also bind together other plants which has been taken to mean it is symbolic of unions, whether friendships or more.  It can also mean fidelity and peace (as it brings together different plants).

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As we’ve just seen, ivy is considered feminine and apparently in Ancient Greek mythology, there was a dancing girl who danced herself to death, dying at the feet of Dionysus.  He was moved by her dancing and transformed her into the ivy plant.  Moving to Rome, ivy is said to be linked to the god of wine, Bacchus, Dionysus’ counterpart.  I wonder if this is in part due to the way ivy grows in a similar way to grape vines?  Don’t try eating ivy berries though… they’re poisonous.

On Owlcation, Edith Rickert, who researched carols from 1400-1700, is referenced as noting that many holly and ivy carols existed during this time period and often involved a debate about the relative merits of men and women.

From a Christian perspective, Ivy, with it’s need to use other plants for support, is said to be a reminder that we need to cling to god for support…

If you’ve read some of my animal spirit posts, you’ll have realised that virtually everything is a symbol for an aspect of Christianity.  Hence my cynical tone here is not about the religion, it’s about the shoehorning of symbolism.

And a tiny note about mistletoe

Mistletoe was thought to protect from evil and was also associated with fertility.  Whilst we use it today for Christmas, it was thought to be bad luck to bring it into the house before New Years Eve.  On a basic level, this makes more sense for the current practice of kissing under mistletoe, surely you want a new relationship to start as the year starts not as it dies?

It was used in homes to protect from lightening and evil but because it is associated with paganism, it’s said to be banned from churches*, except York Minster.  Here, it is laid on the high altar on Christmas Eve.  Then a proclamation was made which pardoned and granted freedom to “inferior and wicked people”.

*Although in practice I’m not sure this is actually the case…