Thursday 15 September 2011

The Lily

  The inspiration for this piece of writing is not the plant itself, I do not grow lilies, hence no photo. The lack of the lily in the garden is not because I don’t love them, on the contrary I can think of little that delights the eyes more; however the battle with the slugs and snails is not one I have ever won. Therefore I need to explain my motivation; it shoots out from this extract I stumbled upon from Bartholomæus Anglicus (1260) reprinted in The Old English Herbals (1922) by Eleanour Sinclair Rohode, which reads;

“The Lely is an herbe with a whyte floure. And though the levys of the floure be whyte; yet wythin shyneth the lykenesse of golde.”

As the lily is such a beauty I thought it would be nice to pause a moment and contemplate.

    So what do we know of the lily? The genus lilium includes many species, around about 110 to be precise. The best known are the tiger lily, calla lily and day lily, however, out of the many species of lily, only the white ones are scented, with the tiger lily as the exception. The white lily is said to stand for purity, the day lily coquetry and the tiger lily wealth and majesty. I should imagine the lily mentioned in the early herbal would be the highly scented Madonna Lily, whose virtue is carried by both gold and scent when approached. Both highly valued.
 According to Mrs Grieve ‘This white Lily was a popular favourite with the ancient Greeks and Romans. In the early days of Christianity it was dedicated by the Church to the Madonna.’ It is said that it is due to its whiteness that the lily is seen as a symbol of purity, and hence the link with the Virgin Mary.
   However, according to Donald Law the lily was said to have 'grown from the tears of Eve when she was driven out of the Garden of Eden.’ Nothing very pure there I would have thought. Law also states that ‘It is supposedly under the Moon. It has been held as the symbol of Juno, of motherhood and of marriage, in its time. Somewhere in the history of the Christian Church the lily was adopted as the symbol of the Virgin Mary, and is also associated with innocence, chastity, pure motherhood and all feminine virtues.’ Not sure I would have put Eve in that basket, unless the tears were of remorse.
   Cunningham indicates that the lily belongs to Juno, also Venus, Nephthys and Kwan Yin, its magical use is for ‘protection,’ by planting in the garden to keep out ghosts, and ‘to protect against the evil eye.’ Also it appears to have a use in ‘breaking love spells’ that have been ‘cast involving a specific person, he says this is done by wearing the lily round the neck. I suppose as a symbol of chastity, this could make sense under some circumstances.
  It seems that it was Gerard who pointed to the fact that‘Our English lilie groweth in most gardens of England.’ It would be nice if that was so. Maybe the cottage gardens were hosts to less snails and slugs than today, their increase possibly due to decline in the hedgehog numbers. And where one does see the lily, this is possibly where some have resorted to slug pellets. ‘Bring back the hedgehog’ I cry.
  The old herbals claimed that the bulbs could be used in the treatment of some forms of venereal disease as well as ulcers and external inflammations and tumours. A salve made from the bulb is also said to remove corns and take away the pain of burns. However I am very unclear as to how it can do both without the addition of another ingredient.
   Back to words of gold; according to William Blake
The modest Rose puts forth a thorn,
The humble sheep a threat’ning horn
While the Lily white shall in Love delight,
Not a thorn nor threat stain her beauty bright.
And then Jesus encouraged one to;
'Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they toil not,
neither do they spin:
even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these."
~ Matthew 6:28-29
  Although the flowers referred to here were probably not the Madonna lily but a blanket term for uncultivated wild flowers. As Jesus was said to be standing on a mount at the time, it may have posed a problem in exact identification. He was after all a the son of a carpenter and not a botanist. Still the lily; without any assistance from man, is surely a wonder to the senses. And it is just rather nice, to think for a while about all the wild beauty that we can still witness, even in our present techno manipulated polluted existence.

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