Consider the Lily; the Meaning of Lilies
by The Editor on October 23rd
‘Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.’ – Luke 12.27
Lilies have long been known as an icon of beauty and easy grace. For the ancient Greeks, it was the symbol of the Goddess Hera. Fans of the myth of Heracles (or even Disney’s Hercules) will remember how Hera spent a great deal of time persecuting the poor hero, inspired by her wrath at her husband, Zeus’, adultery in fathering him. It is perhaps less well known that according to the Greeks, this is the origin myth of the lily:
According to the myth, Zeus was unhappy that his son, Heracles, might be mortal because of his mortal mother Alcmene. So he drugged his own wife, Hera, to send her to sleep. When she slept, he placed the baby Heracles at her breast. Hera, despite the sleep potion, awoke, and threw the child away from her in surprise. A splash of her own milk flew with him, and splashed across the heavens to form the milky way.
A few further drops fell to earth, and where they fell, the first lilies grew.
But despite Hera’s vengeful image, her flower, the lily, has come to symbolise her more positive aspects: purity and innocence.
The Romans, too, came up with a remarkable myth to explain how so beautiful and elegant a flower could come to be. Their myth goes that the goddess of beauty, Venus, was jealous of the lily’s grace and beauty; to mar it, she created the lily’s long suggestive pistil, ensuring that no matter the beauty of the flower, it could not challenge the beauty of Beauty’s own Goddess.
As is the case with many ancient symbols, the Christians have a purer, less wrathful meaning attributed to the lily: for Christians, the lily represents chastity, innocence, purity and piety – all very meek, Christian concepts when placed next to the blood-and-thunder splendour of the Ancients’ myths. In early Christian art, the flower symbolises the Madonna, the Virgin Mary. Different parts of the lily represented different parts of the Virgin’s holiness: the stem, her faithful mind; the petals, her purity; the scent, her divinity; and the leaves, her humility. The French fleur-de-lis, signifying divine right, also springs from the myth of the Virgin Mary.
More recently still, pagan beliefs in tarot cards have adopted the lily’s wonderful aesthetic. The Magician, Temperance and Ace of Pentacles cards all feature a lily, again representing purity, innocence and fertility; as well as vulnerability.
Our own great bard also called on the lily; in his 1595 play King John, William Shakespeare used the lily as an example of natural beauty that needed no embellishment:
'To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.'
All of which shows that whatever mythos or culture has looked to the lily, there are certain innate characteristics to the flower which have led them to very similar conclusions: always brought to the fore is the notion of purity, of a simple grace which is without artistry or deception. Next to the rose, whose mythology is often lustful and passionate, the lily has stood in chaste companionship for centuries; a beacon of untarnished elegance.
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