My visit to ‘The Parthenon Gallery’ in the British Museum encouraged me to explore Iris, and as the flower that is her namesake has just burst into flower in London and the South East, I thought I would turn in her direction and examine both the flower, and the goddess in greater detail.
The figure that caught my attention stood originally on the west pediment of the Parthenon. Both Hermes and Iris appear here as messengers of the gods. Iris was stationed on the left hand side, Hermes to the right. (facing outwards) The identification panel states; ‘Both Athena and Poseidon were accompanied by divine messengers, Athena by Hermes, Poseidon by Iris. She is shown as if just alighting on the Acropolis. Her drapery is pressed flat against her body and flutters out at the edges. It was held at the waist by a bronze girdle, now missing. Her wings, also missing, were socketed in to her shoulders at the back, where the joins would not have been seen.’
It appears on delving further that Iris was considered not only a messenger, but she also had command over the winds, Michael Grant in Myths of the Greeks and Romans (1962) relates in the tale of ‘The Quest for the Golden Fleece, that ‘Hera bade Iris calm the winds for the Argonauts,’ and over to Rome where Ovid told a tale which to me, sounds very similar to the Biblical flood story. Jupiter had decided to destroy the human race due to the violence of the Giants (Titans) who had previously been hurled down from Mount Olympus. And he also needed to rid the world of the humans, who were exhibiting contemptuous behaviour towards the gods. So he (Jupiter) ‘decided to send torrents of rain and plunge mankind beneath the waters.’ ‘Imprisoning the north wind and all other cloud scattering gales, he released the south wind, while Iris drew up water to fill the clouds, and Neptune struck the earth with his trident.’
The link between the goddess and her namesake flower is highlighted in Michael Jordan’s Plants of Mystery and Magic. (1997) Here he points out that; ‘The iris is named after the Greek messenger goddess. A virgin deity, she attended the goddess Hera, and was responsible for the rainbow bridge between heaven and earth. She also carried the souls of women to their place in the other world’.
So it appears that like Hermes Iris moves between the land of the living, the realm of the gods and the land of the dead, as well as commanding the elements. According to Wikipedia , ’She travels with the speed of wind from one end of the world to the other, and into the depths of the sea and the underworld.’ This entry also indicates that she is the wife of Zephyrus, the god of the west wind.
Jordan, in reference to the iris states how in Spain ‘the white varieties became a symbol of the Immaculate Conception, and, from an innovation of Charles V, in poetry, its typical three flowers were interpreted as faith, wisdom and courage.’ Scott Cunningham also states that ‘The three points of the flower symbolize faith, wisdom and valour, and so can be used to induce these qualities.’
Jordan continues to relate that ‘The Iris is one of the most widely known emblems of heraldry, since it is the model for the Fleur de Lys.' The story goes that ‘Louis VII dreamed of Irises before setting out on the crusades in 1137, considered this to be an omen, and therefore adopted the flower as an emblem.’ This is said to have become the ‘Fleur de Louis’ although originally the ‘Fleur de Luce’ and eventually ‘Fleur de Lys through corruption.’ And hence the iris stood as a symbol of power and majesty.
Mrs Grieve enlarges on the tale of the ‘Fleur de Lys by indicating that ‘The legend is that early in the sixth century, the Frankish King Clovis, faced with defeat in battle, was induced to pray for victory to the god of his Christian wife, Clothilde. He conquered and became a Christian and thereupon replaced three toads on his banner by three Irises, the Iris being the Virgin’s flower. Six hundred years later it was adopted by Louis VII of France as his heraldic bearings in the Crusade against the Saracens,’ she goes onto say, regarding the name ‘Fleur de Lys’ it may be ‘from the river Lys, on the borders of Flanders, where it was peculiarly abundant.’
So let's look at the flower herself. Iris Pseudacorus, (yellow flag, native to the UK) grows in damp watery places unlike Iris florentina or I germanica who prefer dryer positions. Pseudo, being Greek for false, as it appears, when not in flower to resemble the sweet sedge, which is known as the sweet flag (acorus calamus) . Mrs Grieve states that ‘the plant is often called “Segg” “Skeggs” or “Cegg,” all of which come down from the Anglo-Saxon days, “Segg” being the Anglo-Saxon for a small sword, an obvious allusion to the shape of the leaves.’ However I can imagine the flower resembling the handle of a sword, rather than the leaves being sword shaped, as this ‘allusion’ could be said to be shared by many plants.
The Iris, (florentina etc) according to Mrs Grieve ‘was dedicated to Juno and was the origin of the sceptre, the Egyptians placing it on the brow of the Sphinx and on the sceptre of their kings, the three leaves of its blossoms typifying faith, wisdom and valour.’ An Ancient Egyptian Herbal by Lise Manniche places the Egyptian Iris as parallel to the ‘Iris germanica, I. florentina‘ (orris)’ and names it ‘nari’ in Egyptian.
According to Mrs Grieve; ‘In ancient Greece and Rome, Orris Root was largely used in perfumery’ It also appears that the Iris was once thought to treat everything from snake bites, dropsy, to coughs and bruises, and as an ingredient in cosmetics, and is still famed for its use by perfumers.
Culpepper clearly defines the two types of Iris or Flower-de-luce as he calls them, and places both the yellow water flag and the blue Flower-de-luce under the dominion of the moon. He refers to what he calls the ‘flaggy kind of Flower-de luce’ from which you can extract an oil called ‘Oleum Irinium’ as opposed to the ‘great bulbous blue Flower-de-luce.’
To Scott Cunningham the Iris (Iris Florentina) is of feminine gender, its planet is Venus, of the element Water, and deities Iris and Juno. The Iris, he says has, powers of ‘purification and wisdom’, He has a separate entry for the ‘Blue Flag’ iris (Iris versicolor) or Fleur-de-Lys, which he places as ‘feminine’ under the influence of Venus but as possessing the power to attract money. However Manfred M Junius in A Practical Alchemy of Plant Magic places all the Iris varieties under the dominion of the moon and Saturn. He does add elsewhere that all of the plant world, in some way are ‘subject to the moon.’ According to Agrippa some turn to the sun, therefore are responding to the sun’s influence more than the moon. The Iris doesn’t, so therefore can be considered as influenced by the moon under such circumstances. The moon, according to Junius influences ‘growth, fertility, conception, the subconscious, the feelings, rhythms, instincts, reflection, passivity, motherliness, family, and heritage.’ whereas ‘Saturn is the sage and the guardian of the threshold to the supernatural.’ Now it appears that Agrippa places plants that produce fragrant flowers under Venus, those used for their roots under Saturn, and those with leaves, the moon. He also places plants that are ‘never sown and never produce fruit,’ under Saturn, those that grow in water, under the moon, so this would apply to the yellow flag, but perhaps not the blue Flower-de-luce, but who knows. Not me at this moment in time, so I will continue to work on my own correspondences, studying those who have gone before, and looking in depth at the plants themselves.