English Ivy Symbolism, Traditions, and Mythology
An Attractive and Symbolic Plant
English ivy is an attractive plant in the ginseng family. It's a climbing, trailing, and creeping vine that forms dense coverings over trees and other supports. The plant is often admired for its beautiful appearance on the walls of buildings. In the past, English ivy was valued for more than its appearance, however. The plant had important symbolic meanings and was part of a rich mythology. Even today, some people appreciate the symbolism of the ivy plant.
English ivy, or Hedera helix, is native to Europe, western Asia, and North Africa. It has been introduced to many other parts of the world as an ornamental plant. Ivy has large leaves with interesting shapes, spreads rapidly over a wide variety of supports, and is evergreen and perennial. These traits ensure that the plant is noticed.
It's easy to imagine how ivy first drew attention to itself. Its juvenile stage has lobed and often large leaves, grows in many different environments, and sometimes spreads aggressively. It can climb to great heights, using its aerial roots to create strong attachments to its support as it ascends. When an ivy plant is allowed to grow undisturbed, its older stems can become as thick as those of some trees.
Despite the fact that it adheres to tree trunks, English ivy isn't a parasite. Only the roots attached to the ground penetrate their substrate to absorb nutrients. The function of the aerial roots is attachment to a support, not absorption.
Today, ivy is sometimes considered to be a nuisance rather than an asset. This is especially true where ivy is an introduced plant. In its native habitat it's more likely to form a peaceful but assertive part of its environment.
The vegetative and climbing stage of English ivy is the most noticeable and the one that most people are familiar with. Its leaves are medium to dark green, shiny, and thick. The leaf veins are conspicuous and are light yellow or white in color. The leaves of the reproductive stage of the plant are oval with pointed tips and have no lobes. Ivy has clusters of greenish yellow flowers and produces clumps of blue-black berries.
The Ancient Deities of Wine
Dionysus was the Ancient Greek god of wine, agriculture, festivity, and theatre. The festivals related to Dionysus sometimes included drunken frenzy and ecstasy as an important component of the revelry. In Ancient Rome, Dionysus was known as Bacchus.
In most versions of the ancient stories about Dionysus, his father is Zeus, the king of the gods, and his mother is the human Seleme. Both the grapevine and the ivy vine are his symbols.
Dionysus is often depicted wearing a crown of ivy and carrying a thyrsus. The thyrsus was a wand or staff made from a stalk of the giant fennel plant or the branch of a tree. Ivy was wrapped around the stalk or branch, which was topped with a pine cone. The thyrsus is believed to have been a fertility symbol. Dionysus sometimes carries a kantharos, or drinking cup, as well as a thyrsus.
Why did grapes and ivy become associated with Dionysus/Bacchus? Ancient people believed that Dionysus discovered how to make wine from grapes and taught the skill to humans. Therefore he became the god of wine. English ivy was said to grow abundantly over the mythical mountain of Nysa, the childhood home of Dionysus, which may explain the link between ivy and the god.
In the Middle Ages ivy was still associated with wine. A branch or bunch of ivy was often hung on a pole outside a tavern to indicate that the building sold wine or ale. The pole was known as an alepole or an alestake. The bunch of ivy was sometimes known as a bush. From this came the saying. "Good wine needs no bush", meaning that something of merit doesn't need to be advertised because the good news will travel by word of mouth.
Despite the plant's association with wine and the fact that its fruits are the same color as some grapes, English ivy berries are poisonous and mustn't be eaten.
The Binding Ability of Ivy and Its Symbolism
English ivy travels along the ground and also climbs up vertical supports such as tree trunks, fence posts, and walls. If its growth is unchecked it can travel from one plant to another, binding the plants together. This ability sometimes has a symbolic meaning.
Some versions of the medieval legend of Tristan and Isolde, or Iseult, refer to ivy's ability to bind. Tristan was a Cornish knight and Isolde was an Irish princess. Tristan went to Ireland to claim Isolde as a bride for King Mark. During the journey back to Cornwall, Tristan and Isolde fell in love after drinking a love potion.
Beyond this basic plot there are many variations in the story. In some versions, Tristan and Isolde die and are buried in separate graves by King Mark so that even in death they cannot be together. However, an ivy vine (or another vine or a tree) grows out of each grave towards the other one. The ivy vines meet and twine around each other, forming a connection. Even when the king cuts the vines they regrow and reconnect.
Ivy represented peace to the Druids of old, perhaps because of its ability to bind different plants or even different kinds of plants together. Today ivy is often used at weddings, where it symbolizes fidelity.
In the Middle Ages, holly represented the masculine element, perhaps because of its prickles and harder leaves, while ivy represented the female element. Both plants were appreciated as winter greenery at a time when many other plants were bare of leaves, especially as holly and ivy had attractive berries.
Old and Symbolic Christmas Carols
Edith Rickert (1871-1938) was an English professor at the University of Chicago. Even before she became a professor she was an active investigator in the area of English literature and carols.
Rickert's book Ancient English Christmas Carols:1400-1700 was published in 1910. In this book she says that many holly and ivy carols existed during the time period that she investigated and that they often involved a debate about the relative merits of men and women.
The first three verses of one of these carols is shown below. The words of the carol describe why holly is superior to ivy, or why males are better than females. They may also indicate that holly was brought indoors as a winter decoration while ivy wasn't. The word "lybe" in the third verse refers to chapped skin or a chilblain. The carol is believed to date from the 1500s but the spelling has been updated to that of the 1800s. The newer version was published in 1868 in a book compiled by William Husk called Songs of the Nativity.
Another carol involving a competition between a male and a female and published in William Husk's book is "Holly and Ivy Made a Great Party". In the last verse of this carol, Ivy appears to have won the debate about who "will have the mastery" as Holly goes down on one knee in front of her. The carol is thought to date from the late 1400s.
The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly
Holly standeth in the hall fair to behold,
Ivy stands without the door; she is full sore a cold
Holly and his merry men, they dancen and they sing;
Ivy and her maidens, they weepen and they wring.
Ivy hath a lybe, she caught it with the cold,
So may they all have, that with Ivy hold.
Decorating for Christmas
Carols such as the ones shown above may have been sung in conjunction with the decorating of a house or a church hall for Christmas. A common story on carol websites is that good-natured singing contests were held during the time when the two carols were popular. In these contests, men (holly) sang songs disparaging women (ivy) and women sang songs disparaging men. The contest is a nice idea and may well have happened, but so far I haven't found any reliable evidence to support it.
Choir of Kings College Cambridge Sings The Holly and the Ivy
A Traditional Carol
Pagan customs such as bringing evergreens into the house during the winter solstice continued even after Christianity became dominant in Britain. Many of these customs are still popular during today's Christmas celebrations. The old carols about holly and ivy have been replaced by a Christian version, however. This song is known as "The Holly and the Ivy".
For those not family with the words of today's carol, they can be heard in the video above. The lyrics are somewhat puzzling. The first line is "The Holly and the Ivy", yet ivy is mentioned nowhere else in the carol except in the last verse, which is a repeat of the first verse. Holly is given the starring role in the song and ivy is ignored, so it seems strange that ivy is even mentioned.
The explanation that is often given is that the first line in the carol is a remnant of the old custom of linking holly and ivy together. In the rest of the carol ivy isn't needed. The "holly" in the carol refers to Christ and the theme of the carol is his life.
The Ivy League
The Ivy League is a group of eight private and prestigious universities in the northeastern United States. The universities were established in the 1600s to 1800s and have a long tradition. The oldest of the group is Harvard, which was founded in 1636. Yale, Pennsylvania, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, and Dartmouth were founded in the 1700s and Cornell was founded in 1865.
The term "Ivy League" at first referred to the athletic league to which all eight universities belonged. Now it refers to the universities themselves. Some of the university buildings are covered with ivy, and in the 1800s the students at some of the institutions planted ivy as an annual tradition. These factors aren't believed to be directly responsible for the term Ivy League, however. The explanation that is considered to be most likely for the origin of the term is its mention by a newspaper reporter named Caswell Adams.
In the early 1930s, a writer at the New York Tribune named Stanley Woodward referred to the northeastern universities as "ivy colleges". This was perhaps the start of the tradition of using the word ivy in the group name for the universities.
Caswell Adams also worked at the New York Tribune. In 1937 Adams was assigned to write a report of a football game between two universities belonging to today's Ivy League. This assignment reportedly prevented him from covering a game involving his alma mater—Fordham University—which was doing very well in football at that time. Apparently, Adams complained about having to cover a game between either two "ivy covered" or two "ivy league" universities. When the report appeared in the newspaper it referred to the universities as Ivy League institutions.
The Plant Today
English ivy is an interesting and tenacious plant that can be a useful part of its environment or an annoying interloper. Some people value ivy as an ornamental plant or as a part of nature. Ivy's nectar and pollen can be important for bees and butterflies. Other people dislike the plant for its rapid growth and its ability to cover other plants and block sunlight. Whether we are an ivy supporter or a detractor, however, the plant is hard to ignore. Just as in the past, English ivy can make its presence felt.
Monarch Butterflies Feeding on English Ivy Nectar
- The Theo Greek Mythology site has an entry about Dionysus (or Dionysos) and the thyrsus (or thyrsos).
- The Kennedy Centre describes one of the old stories about Tristan and Isolde as well as the opera by Wagner that was based on it.
- The full version of the quoted ivy and holly carol is located at the Hymns and Carols of Christmas website. Other carols about holly and ivy are also shown at this site.
- A brief history of the Ivy League is given on a page of the Brown University website.
© 2014 Linda Crampton