Sunday, 23 December 2012

The Hedonistic History of the Interesting Ivy

Nay, Ivy, nay; it shall not be i-wys ;
Let Holly hafe the maystery, as the manner is.
Holly stond in the Halle fayre to behold;
Ivy stond without the dore; she is full sore acold.
Holly and his merry men they dancyn and they sing.
Ivy and hur maidens they wepyn and they wryng.
Ballad from the time of Henry VI

          If the early Christians found the holly easy to assimilate into their iconography, ivy was an all-together different matter. The old pagans had seen holly and ivy as representative of the male and female principles, as they did with the robin and the wren; they were a pairing that naturally went together. Holly had sufficient attributes that matched the Christian story – the spiny leaves were reminiscent of the crown of thorns, the scarlet berries were obviously the drops of blood shed during the Passion, the white flowers symbolised purity, and being evergreen echoed everlasting life. 


Ivy was different. The early church fathers were not too enthusiastic about women to begin with, so the feminine aspects of ivy didn’t sit too well with them, but ivy had other connotations too. In Classical times, ivy was sacred to the gods of wine, the Greek Dionysus and the Roman Bacchus (Kissos, the Greek for ivy, was the original name of the infant Bacchus), and that is where the trouble started. Wine was central to the Christian rites but was also central to the rites of Dionysus, and the parallels didn’t stop there. 

Dionysus and Ivy

The legends of Dionysus tell of a young god of epiphanies who arrives from another world, born of a divine father and a mortal mother, who is killed but returns to life, who descends into Hades but also returns, who is celebrated in a ritual meal of bread and wine. 


However, Dionysus was also the god of revels, of madness and chaos; his followers, the maenads, are dangerous women who tear men and animals into pieces with their bare hands in their uncontrolled, ecstatic, possessed state, they sing and dance wildly, and engage in unrestrained sexual activity. On their heads, they wear wreathes of ivy and Dionysus himself carries a staff of ivy-wood, the thyrsus, wrapped with ivy leaves and tipped by a pine cone, which drips honey and is a beneficent wand although it can also be used as a weapon. 

Dionysus with thyrsus and Maenad

Not really the sort of things that the bishops sought to be associated with. And, in classical times, ivy was used as the sign of the tavern; a large bush was hung above the door of alehouses, although, as Rosalind says in As You Like It, ‘Good wine needs no bush’. The antiquary John Aubrey refers to this in the line, “The Tavern-bush is dress't with Ivy, which is derived from that of Bacchus”; again not the sort of places that good, sober Christians might frequent. 

Ivy Bush

The early church councils, particularly those held at Braga, forbade Christians to decorate their homes and churches with evergreen foliage, and the Elizabethan Puritan William Prynne disapproved of the practice,
At Christmas men do always Ivy get,
And in each corner of the house it set;
But why do they then use that Bacchus-weed?
Because they mean, then, Bacchus-like to feed.” 
 There was a common belief that drinking wine from a cup made from the wood of the ivy would keep the drinker sober, or ivy berries added to wine would do the same and some believed that an ivy goblet had the ability to separate a mixture of wine and water. Water drunk from an ivy-cup was a sure cure for hooping-cough in children. It has to be said that ivy, like holly, is poisonous and should never be taken internally. 

Owl with Ivy

In the ballad quoted at the beginning of this post are also these lines,  
“Good Ivy what byrdys hast thou ? 
Non but the owlet that kreye how! how!”  
The cry of the owlet was taken to be an omen of approaching death, and ivy was a funeral plant. The weeping ivy on the Yule log, like the weeping mothers of Modranicht, mourn the death of the year, and in the language of flowers ivy represented steadfastness, seen again in the mourning mothers lamenting the passing of their loved, lost children. Ivy was placed in the wreath that adorned the boar’s head at the Yule feast and a sprig of another funereal herb, rosemary, was stuck into the apple in the boar’s mouth.

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