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History Of Irises

"Flower of the lily" - the name given long time ago to the white Florentine iris (iris florentina). Perhaps the iris was once commonly called a lily. Some claim that fleur-de-lis means "flower of Louis," but whatever the origin, there's no question that the fleur-de-lis does represent an iris. It was the respected emblem of French monarchs for many centuries, appearing on flags, tapestries, shields and armor.

Possibly, the use of the iris as a symbol traces back to ancient India and Egypt, where it stood as a symbol of life. Hathor, the ancient Egyptian goddess of heaven, joy, music and love, was the mother of Horus, the god of light and heaven. Horus often was identified with the lotus, symbol of the essence of life, and sometimes was said to have been born of the lotus.

This symbolism eventually extended to the iris and also the lily: These flowers became associated with thunder, one of the destructive powers of Horus. Since the thunder weapon was used to protect the Egyptians, the flowers came to represent the protection of life. So the iris was a symbol of both the essence and the renewal of life. The ancient Egyptians believed that the three petals stood for faith, wisdom and valor. Since the iris flower reflected a sense of authority, it was used to decorate the funeral temples of the pharaohs, who believed the iris would preserve their power in the next life.

There are iris species names - Iris mesopotamia and I. kashmiriana - that correspond to territories where Alexander the Great's army marched eastward as far as India in the fourth century B.C. This son of Philip of Macedonia was the first conqueror of Western civilization and as a result was a spearhead of ancient Greek culture. Other irises collected at around the same period reflect places that the Greeks colonized on Turkish shores - Iris trojana, I. cypriana and I. junonia.

The goddess Iris of Greek mythology was a beloved messenger of the gods, especially of Hera, who became Juno to the ancient Romans. She had golden wings and was the goddess of the rainbow. Iris traveled on the rainbow's arc, carrying commands and messages from the ancient gods to mankind. Iris married the west wind, Zephyrus. To this day, the Greeks plant irises on women's graves, believing that the goddess Iris will guide the souls of women to their last resting places.

In the Christian world, the fleur-de-lis came to be particularly sacred to the Virgin Mary. A legend tells of a knight who could never remember more than the two words Ave Maria of the Latin prayer that was said to honor the Holy Mother. Night and day, he continued his supplications with these two words. After many years, the old man died and was buried in the chapel yard of a convent. Proof of the acceptance of his brief but sincere prayer by the Virgin Mary came when a plant of fleur-de-lis grew upon his grave. On each flower, golden letters spelled out Ave Maria.

The number three is implicit in the structure of the iris flower and obvious in its three standards and three falls, the six petals of its form. Three has also long been a strong and mystical number, especially in representing the Trinity in Christianity. There were also the three Magi. There are many triple design elements in ecclesiastical art.

The number three represented completion to Pythagoras, the sixth-century B.C. Greek philosopher and mathematician. He thought so because the number three consists of a beginning, middle and end. Three is prominent in Greek mythology, which also offers the three Fates, the three Graces and Cerberus, the three-headed dog. Cerberus lived in the Infernal Regions near the black river Cocytus where Charon served as boatman.

The first mention of the iris in the history of France occurs during the reign of Clovis I, a Frankish king who became the powerful ruler of the Merovingian dynasty that founded the French state, in A.D. 481. It was Clovis who defeated Rome's last great army in Gaul in 486. He went on to also defeat the Alamanni, the Visigoths and the Burgundians. Within a decade Clovis and the Franks would rule western Germany and the Low Countries of north-western Europe, as well as most of Gaul.

Legend says that Clovis adopted the fleur-de-lis as his symbol in the early 500s when an angel gave him an iris in honor of his becoming a Christian. Clovis was the first Germanic ruler to become a Christian. Up until that point, most of the Germanic kings were either pagans or Aryan heretics. Clovis earned the valuable support of the Catholic clergy and laymen with his conversion to Christianity.

A few hundred years later, in 1147, the fleur-de-lis was first used as an emblem of French monarchy by an ordonnance of Louis le ]eune. Then in 1376, Charles V, known throughout his kingdom of France as Charles the Wise, adopted three fleurs-de-lis for his coat of arms. In addition to being a man of letters who supported both art and literature, Charles V reformed the government that had been torn apart by rivaling factions, built up the army and navy and resumed the Hundred Years' War with England. Since he was successful in all of these ventures, the iris became recognized throughout Europe as a symbolize of the reign of Charles the Wise.

That is how the iris came to be a symbol in the system of heraldry. At first these symbols-the iris, beasts, fish and birds-were simply helpful ways to tell foe from friend in those medieval days when knights were encased in armor. Like Clovis, the knights chose symbols that represented an event or some quality of character. These heraldic symbols were also used as seals to authenticate documents in times when few could read and write.

Once gunpowder was introduced from China, armor was no longer effective, and the symbols of heraldry then were used in elegant emblems created to represent particular families rather than individual knights. The symbols combined to make coats of arms that were created in formal patterns following certain rules of usage. In 1484, the Herald's College or College of Arms was established in England by Richard Ill. This institution made the decisions as to who qualified to use and wear coats of arms and also what particulars could be used to make a coat of arms. In the code of usage of the Herald's College, the fleur-de-lis is the mark that symbolizes a sixth son on the shields of coats of arms.

The fleur-de-lis became common as an artistic symbol. It has shown up as an attractive terminal for the limbs of the cross. Since the fleur-de-lis is an ancient symbol of life, this is appropriate symbolism.

History of Irises in the Garden


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