Reprint: The Iris Legend

by Dora Wall ~ Reprinted from AISB #196, January 1970.

If there existed somewhere in the world a tapestry into which were woven all the stories, legends, beliefs, symbols and facts concerning the Iris – it would be a very long tapestry indeed; and the end of it would not be visible, for the weavers are still at work.

Surely, somewhere near the beginning of this tapestry there would be a rainbow; somewhere also a lovely Goddess clad in multi-colored robes, wearing a nimbus and displaying golden wings, would appear; Then there would be depicted Knights, Kings, Pyramids, mountains, streams, meadows, rooftops, and all manner of people. The colors of the tapestry would range from somber to gaudy; and the shapes of the flower embossed throughout would vary greatly – though always one would see three petals reaching up and three arching down.

We owe the name of our flower to the Greeks. Among their deities, who dwelt on Mt. Olympus, was one called Iris. She was the special messenger of Hera, the Queen Goddess. When Iris carried special messages from Heaven to Earth, she used the rainbows as her pathway.

There are many stories about how the flower came to bear the name of the Goddess. It is certain that the Ancients believed the flower to be especially loved and endowed by the Gods.

the goddess irisOne story has it that the Gods held a party for all the flowers. They all came bedecked in their finest colors. But one poor little flower – the Cinderella of the Flower Kingdom – appeared wearing only the dull, tattered dress of a cinder girl. And the heart of Iris was touched. She told the poor little flower: “You shall be clad even as I!” At the next party that little flower appeared in the most dazzling dress of all, a dress that contained all the colors of the rainbow. Ever since, this flower has been known as Iris, the rainbow flower. Another version of basically the same story says: One day the flowers all assembled at the invitation of Juno (Roman equivalent of Hera), to celebrate the birthday of Iris. They all came in their prettiest dresses and were having a fine time when three new sister flowers were seen approaching, dressed in gowns of red, yellow, and purple, and wearing gorgeous jewels, but no one knew who they were. As they were without names, they were christened Iris, because they wore the colors of the rainbow, and thus it is that they bear the name of the messenger of the Gods

Still another story in point runs as follows: “Apollo was casting a quoit, and as it whizzed through the air, the West Wind (who was filled with jealous anger that Hyanthus preferred Apollo to him) seized the quoit in his invisible grasp, changed its course and sent it with deadly force to Hyanthus. Taking the boy’s lifeless body in his arms, Apollo gave him promise of immortal life: “You die,” he exclaimed to the boy, “but from your blood shall spring a flower that ALL SHALL LOVE!” As he spoke, a delicate blossom, in shape like a lily, but of a delicate purple hue sprang from the ground. This flower the Greeks called the hyacinth, but today it is called the Iris, in honor of the Goddess of the Rainbow.

Below the Gods were the Kings and rulers who also loved the Iris and who attributed some God-like powers to it. In the ancient and medieval world the Iris was widely used as a symbol of Power.

scene from the palace at knossosFour thousand years ago, on a fresco of the wall of the palace of Minos at Knossos, a conventionalized iris appears. The Egyptians introduced it into their architecture as a symbol of Eloquence and Power. It was placed upon the brow of the Sphinx and upon the sceptre of their rulers. In Ancient Babylonia it was recognized as one of the symbols of royalty. In the Amber Palace near Jaipur in India there is a bas relief of an iris.

Left: Wall fresco from the Palace at Knossos.

Clovis, reported to be the first Christian King of France, was by many people supposed to be the first to carry the Fleur-de-Lys insignia. According to one story, Clovis, in 507, when fighting with the West Goths, came upon a river too deep to cross. The clatter of his troops startled a deer, which ran to a spot from which it crossed safely, indicating to Clovis the safe place to cross. At this point, the water-iris were growing. He picked one and then crossed safely and later won a victory. Believing his victory due to the influence of the iris, he henceforth regarded it as a symbol of victory. We know that the iris is the national flower of France, where it was first called Fleur-de-Lys. There are several legends in regard to its adoption. One of these also concerns Clovis. His wife, who was a Christian, endeavored by prayers and good deeds to bring about the conversion of her war-like husband. For a long time he resisted, but finally, when he was in danger of defeat by the Huns, he called for assistance from the God his wife worshipped. The tide of battle turned; he won a complete victory, and upon his return was baptized in the Christian Faith. The following night an angel appeared to a holy hermit who dwelt near the castle and gave him a beautiful shield emblazoned with three golden Fleur-de-Lys, which he bade the Queen to give to Clovis.

the fleur-de-lisA later tradition ascribes the Fleur-de-Lys to Louis VII of France. About to start on his Crusades to the Holy Land, the white Banner of the French Crusaders was found one morning to be covered with purple Fleur-de-Lys. Louis regarded it as evidence of Divine approval, and adopted it as the emblem of France, and had it engraved upon his signet ring. The soldiers called it Fleur-de-Louis, which later was contracted to Fleur-de-Luce, and finally to Fleur-de-Lys. It was incorporated into the Arms of France and used in the decoration of the Crown itself. Charles VI reduced the number of flowers to three – supposedly in recognition of the Holy Trinity. The Fleur-de-Lys was banned in France during the Revolution; since then the tri-color has been the National Emblem.

For some time, after the conquests of France, by Edward III, England added it to its Coat of Arms. Only in 1801 did it disappear from the English shield.

In 1272, the City-State of Florence, Italy, had the iris as its official flower – and does, even today. At one time its gold coins, the “Florins,” had the Fleur-de-Lys on one side of them.

Not only Royalty, but Religions and semi-religious organizations have found the Iris suitable for symbolic use.

The Mohammedans brought the white iris, Albicans, to Spain, and the Spaniards took it to Mexico. The Mohammedans planted it on the graves of their dead. Many of our early pioneers planted iris on graves as well. Perhaps it was because they were hardy, and the rhizomes survived long months of being out of the ground; but I like to think there was another reason. One task ascribed to the Goddess Iris was the final severing of the cord between body and soul of the dying. Could this account for the use of Iris on graves?

Detail of Hugo van der Goes's Portinari AltarpieceLeft: Detail of Hugo van der Goes’s Portinari Altarpiece, datable to the mid-1470s, featuring irises as a symbol of the Virgin Mary.

Katherine M. Beals in “Flower Lore and Legend” says: “As a religious symbol the iris is sacred to the Virgin Mary. There was once a knight who was not learned, but who was most devout. He never could remember more than two words of the Latin prayer to the Holy Mother. These words were Ave Maria, and he repeated them over and over, night and day, until at last he died and was buried in the chapel-yard of a convent near which he lived. After a while a strange flower grew on his grave, a Fleur-de-Lys, which bore on every blossom in golden letters the words Ave Maria. The monks, who had held him in contempt during his life, because of his ignorance, opened the grave and were surprised to find the root of the plant resting on the lips of the holy knight, whose body lay in the grave.”

In the Bible Jesus compares the colors of the “Lilies of the Fields” (probably native iris) favorably to the garments worn by Soloman, a very rich ruler who flaunted his wealth. Does this not suggest they were favored by God?

Marguerite Dutch, in “White Shrine of Jerusalem”, presents the iris standards as representing spiritual things (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; heart, mind and soul, etc.) and the falls to her symbolize human and earthly things (Faith, Hope, and Charity; father, mother and child, etc.).

The Japanese, though not as a religious symbol, feature the iris at their June Flower Festival. Purple, yellow, white and some shades of blue are the principal colors. At Horo Kin, near Tokio,[sic] the plants are arranged to produce a wonderful color affect. On June 5, they hang bunches of wild iris under the eaves of their homes to ward off evil spirits and to guard their homes from misfortune. Public conveyances are decorated with garlands of iris. The hot water in the public baths is perfumed with iris roots. In some places in Japan irises are planted on the roofs of houses. This is a custom which originated long ago when there was a famine in Japan and no one was allowed to plant any thing in the ground that could not be used for food. The Japanese use the iris to send when congratulations are in order, except for weddings, when purple is not used.

The iris is also mentioned in literature. It was once believed to be a member of the Lily family, so possibly some references to the lily actually applied to some form of iris. A passage from Virgil’s Aeneid was translated by Harry Randall to say: “So beloved iris, adorned by the sun across the heavens with a thousand varied hues, speeds down through the sky on saffron wings”. The French poets have made their national flower a frequent theme for verse. Chaucer and Ben Johnson both seem to have been familiar with it. Milton numbers it with the flowers of Paradise: “Iris all hues . . . ” Shakespeare often refers to the iris in his historical plays. And Shelley must have referred to the swamp-iris in these two lines:

“And nearer to the river’s trembling edge
There grew broad flag flowers, purple prankt with white”

Finally, the iris had a practical use. Orris root, used medically, was made from it. Katherine M. Beals says: “The roots, which had many of the properties of honey, were used in the preparation of forty-one different remedies.” They were used as cures for everything from teething troubles of infants to bites of serpents and scorpions.

An exquisite perfume was made from some varieties of iris.

The japanese women used face powder made from the roots of the plant.

If you have read the above chronical with a cynical smile, take a good look at yourself. Iris fans have come to their hobby by various roads. Many of you may recall the exact experience that committed you to it. All of you bring “Burnt Offerings” in the form of money, back-breaking labor, and sweat. You arrange your vacations to accord with iris seasons. In the winter you spend happy hours reading the “Iris Begats”, stories about great irisarians, and accounts of Important Iris (such as DOMINION, RAMESES, SNOW FLURRY, and PROGENITOR) which have helped in the evolution of Our Flower. Sometimes they even invade your dreams. And which one of you has not stood in awed silence before a clump of iris – feeling something akin to worship? Let’s face it!!! WE ARE IRIS CULTISTS?

~ Reprinted from AISB #196, January 1970.