Ivy possesses some curious symbolism in literature, religion, and myth. Its associations with immortality and romantic loyalty are firmly established, but are worth exploring in more detail, with reference to some specific examples from the world of literature. Ivy can sometimes be poisonous, and sometimes medicinal, but its cultural significance and literary symbolism are a little more complex. So, let’s take a closer look at the symbolism of this curious evergreen plant.
Ivy and Dionysus
Ivy is closely associated with the Greek god Dionysus, god of wine, fertility, orchards, religious ecstasy, and theatre, among much else. Dionysus was often depicted in literature and art as being wreathed in ivy. Because ivy is an evergreen plant, it symbolises immortality; but with specific reference to Dionysus (later, Bacchus, in Roman myth), ivy also symbolised the during nature of sexual desire.
In the cult of Dionysus, ivy complemented, and dovetailed with, the vine. Whereas wine inspired hot passions, the cooling powers of ivy – that winter plant – inspired profound and long-lasting thoughts rather than fleeting impulses. He used ivy to ensnare women in mystical awe and delirium whenever they refused to worship him. One can imagine Dionysus deploying an ivy lasso to capture women, like Indiana Jones with his whip. Once they were caught under his spell, these women went to the mountains, where they joined the Maenads, Dionysus’ female followers (known as the ‘raving ones’).
Ivy is known for its clinging properties, so we can see why Dionysus chose to use ivy to bring women over to his cult. We will return to the clinging nature of ivy later on.
Other ivy symbolism in mythology
In his The Wordsworth Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them (Wordsworth Reference), Hans Biedermann notes that Thalia, the muse of comedy in Greek culture, was also depicted as wreathed or crowned in ivy – perhaps because of the associations between theatre (of which Dionysus was the god) and comedy.
Attis was an ancient Greek (and Phrygian) god of vegetation. He was loved by Cybele, a mother-goddess figure from Anatolia and later associated with Greek mythology with Gaia, the earth-goddess. Ivy held sacred symbolism for Attis, and was associated with death and rebirth – which is odd, in some ways, given ivy’s aforementioned evergreen properties. But before Attis, in Egyptian civilisation ivy was also sacred to Osiris, who was resurrected after his death: another indication of ivy’s associations with immortality and rebirth.
Ivy symbolism in poetry
As an evergreen plant that is still green in the depths of winter, ivy – along with holly – is well-known to many people thanks to the Christmas carol, ‘The Holly and the Ivy’:
The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.
The rising of the sun
And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir.
Nobody knows who penned the words to this Christmas song; it is usually given the status ‘traditional’. The words were certainly in print by the early nineteenth century. However, it is thought that it may have been composed as early as 1710, making it among the oldest classic Christmas carols. The song focuses on the traditional Christmas plants used to decorate the house at Christmas time. As such – and because holly was sacred to druids – the poem has more pagan connotations than many other Christmas carols.
In Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Ivy-Wife’, the speaker of the poem – the ‘ivy-wife’ of the title, suggesting a female personification of the ivy plant – tells of how she endeavoured to join herself with a series of trees, in an act of love but also for reasons of ambition:
I longed to love a full-boughed beech
And be as high as he:
I stretched an arm within his reach,
And signalled unity.
But with his drip he forced a breach,
And tried to poison me.
She wanted to be as tall as the beech, the plane, and the ash trees which she joins herself to. This act of climbing – ivy is, after all, a climbing-plant – is, though, a symbol for social climbing, something that Thomas Hardy also writes about repeatedly in his fiction. Here we are reminded of the romantic symbolism of ivy (it suggests true love and devotion) but Hardy also plays upon the plant’s climbing to symbolise the ivy-wife’s determination to move on, and up, the social ranks.
Ivy symbolism in fiction
In his short story ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’, from his 1914 collection Dubliners, James Joyce draws upon the symbolism of ivy in Irish history: Ivy Day used to be observed every year in Ireland on the 6th of October, in memory of Charles Stewart Parnell, the influential Irish nationalist politician.
In Joyce’s story, the politicians fall short of the ideals established by Parnell. The men are nostalgic for the days of Parnell, in the mid-nineteenth century:
The three men fell silent. The old man began to rake more cinders together. Mr. Hynes took off his hat, shook it and then turned down the collar of his coat, displaying, as he did so, an ivy leaf in the lapel.
‘If this man was alive,’ he said, pointing to the leaf, ‘we’d have no talk of an address of welcome.’
‘That’s true,’ said Mr. O’Connor.
‘Musha, God be with them times!’ said the old man. ‘There was some life in it then.’
The significance of the ivy leaves in the men’s lapels is a visual reminder of what they are striving to remember, but also a sign of how much they have forgotten.