English Ivy

Hedera helix

Scrambling up walls, trees and the faces of houses, ivy is a tenacious climbing plant that attaches itself very firmly to whatever it grows up, producing aerial roots along its stems which change shape to fit the surface of whatever it climbs.  Tiny root hairs grow out from the root, with hook like structures on the ends, and fit themselves into any tiny cavities within the climbing surface.  There, they dry out, scrunching into a spiral-shape that locks the root hair into place.  They will stay attached even when the plant dies.  [1] No wonder ivy was an ancient symbol of loyalty, devotion, undying desire and friendship beyond the grave. 

Most of ivy’s other symbolic associations come from the fact it is an evergreen, flowering late in the year and staying alive and vibrant throughout the winter, when other plants around it lie dead or dormant.   This made it a sign of life continuing and hope for the future.  The ancients thought that evergreens had magical powers that enabled them to withstand the cold and dark, and they were used in rituals and decorations around the winter solstice to encourage the return of light, warmth and life.   At the Roman Saturnalia, a winter solstice festival of peace and joy which temporality recreated the Golden Age when the god Saturn ruled on earth, holly and ivy were employed for decorations, rituals and gifts.   The early Christian author Quintus Tertullian (155 – 220 CE) tried to ban the practice as a Pagan custom., but when that didn’t work, the Church was forced to re-interpret it by making the holly a Christian symbol of the crown of thorns, though it continued to try to prohibit ivy from decorations as being too Pagan. 

That obviously didn’t work either, as we still use holly and ivy in our decorations today and one of our oldest and best-known carols is the Holly and the Ivy.   The pairing of the holly and ivy was seen in the old Christmas custom of the Holly Boys and Ivy Girls who played games of forfeits and sang uncomplimentary songs about each other in a good-natured battle of the sexes.    However, there were taboos remaining.   Holly and ivy were only brought in on Christmas Eve; in Guernsey it invited disaster for any ivy to come into the house before then.   In Cambridgeshire, it was even very unlucky to accidentally bring in ivy with the firewood at any time than Christmas Eve.   [2] As an ornament, ivy was only placed in out of the way parts of the house, such as passageways, or it would bring bad fortune.   The ivy was never be left up after Twelfth Night, and it was always burned to dispose of it, as any other method of clearance was to court catastrophe.   

The ivy was an important sacred plant for our Pagan ancestors.   It begins to grow on the ground, but then climbs the nearest tree spiralling around it, heading towards the light.    This associates the plant with the path of the Sun since the path of the Sun during the year appears to be a spiral one.  Any plant with a spiral growth pattern was thus considered a plant that reflected the immortal nature of the sun, which goes into the underworld at night but is reborn each morning, and which dwindles in the winter, but is reborn at the winter solstice.  

As a plant of the sun, ivy was used to make fire.   The Greeks thought that fire should come from an ivy stick struck into a laurel groove, a union of the two genders, the active male (ivy), being brought into the passive female (laurel).   Pliny wrote of ivy as a warm wood, suitable for fire.   [3]

The ivy was especially sacred to death and resurrection vegetation gods such as Dionysus, Bacchus, Attis, Liber and Osiris; in Christian allegory it symbolised the eternal life and the resurrection of Christ.    For this reason, ivy is sometimes included in the costumes of the Jack in the Green figures that appear in folklore festivals in spring, or the green men carved in churches.   Ivy leaves were depicted on the sarcophagi of early Christians as a symbol of eternal life and immortality.   On All Souls Day, Catholics laid ivy on the graves of the dead to signify the immortality of the soul, as well as love and friendship beyond death.   [4]

Ivy was a plant of fertility.  It has five-pointed leaf representing the creative hands of the earth goddess, Rhea.  Its connection with fecundity persisted in popular belief right into the early twentieth century.  Because of its special powers, church ivy saved from Christmas was a fertility charm, was fed to ewes to induce the conception of spring lambs, or a woman might keep an ivy leaf from the Christmas decorations to encourage the birth of twins.   [5]

In Classical mythology the ivy and the grape vine were often paired.  The Greeks viewed it as a kind of primordial grape vine.  [6]  Though they are both climbing plants, with similar shaped leaves, and have closely related mythologies, the grape vine causes drunkenness, while wearing ivy was believed to prevent it.   The ivy was beloved of the god Zeus, whose priests avoided wine, and instead consumed ivy in order to prophesy.  The wine god Dionysus wore a crown of ivy and the Maenads (‘Raving Ones’), his female votaries, carried the thyrsus (an ivy-entwined staff) and draped in the skins of animals, abandoned themselves to orgiastic dancing and singing during their celebrations.   At the revels of Thrace and Thessaly, drunken Maenads, wreathed in ivy, would rampage in the mountains, tearing animals and sometimes people apart in their intoxication, having eaten ivy leaves and berries to heighten the state of ecstasy.   The legendary musician Orpheus was torn to pieces by the Maenads, who had drunk a concoction of ivy and toadstool.   However, all this is a bit of a mystery, as ivy is not psychoactive and to date, however, no inebriating substances have been found in ivy.   The gods and Maenads were certainly depicted wearing the kind of ivy we recognise, so perhaps taking a sacrament of the god was enough for the Maenads, without any chemical stimulation from the ivy, to believe that the god was within them “…nor need its possession be considered something detrimental, like drugged, hallucinatory, or delusionary: but possibly instead an invitation to knowledge or whatever good the god’s spirit had to offer.”  [7] All else was beer, wine and mushrooms. 

In England, right up to the time of Shakespeare, an ivy bush was the sign of a tavern. Wearing ivy leaves as a garland was thought to prevent the ill effects of drunkenness.    An old hangover cure was made by simmering ivy leaves in wine and drinking the mixture.

Ivy’s strength, durability and immortal nature made it a suitable plant to form the crowns of victors in ancient Greece.   Alexander the Great returned from his victory in India wearing an ivy crown.   [8] Many deities were depicted wearing ivy crowns including Pan, Hercules, Feronia, Priapus and Chiron.   The muse of epic verse Calliope wore an ivy wreath, suggesting a connection between the inspirational nature of the plant and poetry.   Classical poets wore ivy garlands to signify everlasting fame. Even in the twentieth century, crowns of ivy were presented to the winners of the first revived Eisteddfods, the festivals of bards that still takes place in Wales.

Ancient Greek newlyweds wore wreaths of ivy, as the clinging nature of the plant and the evergreen leaves made it a symbol of constancy and eternal love.   It was used to decorate the altars of Hymen (‘joiner’) the Greek god of marriage.    In the Victorian Language of Flowers, ivy signified “I choose thee above all”, and featured in popular spells and divinations right into the twentieth century.  To find who she would marry, a girl might use the following charm:

Ivy, ivy I love you

In my bosom I put you

The first man who speaks to me

My future husband he will be.

Its use in love charms may stem partly from the fact that the juvenile leaves are heart shaped, only developing into five lobes as they grow. 

Because of its magical nature, ivy featured in many such charms.   In Shropshire, for example, children with whooping cough drank from ivy wood cups to cure them, and at least one wood turner did a roaring trade in vessels for the purpose.   [9]  Wreaths of ivy with rowan and woodbine were placed near milk containers to protect the contents from invading sprits.   In Germany, when the cows were put out to their summer pastures, they were each given wreaths of ivy.   It was believed that anyone who wore ivy on May Eve would have the power to recognise witches.   [10] However, it was very unlucky to pluck an ivy leaf from a church wall and invited illness. 

Ivy leaves were used in divination.    In Cornwall, on Twelfth Night, an ivy leaf was passed through a ring for each member of the family, then put in water.   The next day the leaves were examined, and the future of each person judged from their condition; a stain on the leaf in the shape of a coffin meant death.   In a similar practice, an ivy leaf was placed in water on New Year’s Eve and left till Twelfth Night.   If the leaf stayed green, in meant the year would be happy.   If the leaf had turned black it indicated illness, or if decayed, it foretold death.   [11] At Halloween in Wales, ivy leaves were gathered, the pointed ones considered males, rounded ones, female.    One of each would be named for a couple.  When they were thrown into the fire, if they jumped together the parties would be married, if they jumped apart, it meant antipathy.   In Wales, the state of ivy growing on the wall was also significant.   If it withered, it meant that the property would pass into the hands of strangers through lack of heirs.  

The ivy is sometimes seen as the female companion to the male grain spirit at harvest time.   In England, the last sheaf to be cut was bound with ivy and called the Ivy Girl.   The farmer who was last in with his harvest was given the Ivy Girl as his penalty and it represented bad luck until the following harvest.  

Though ivy worries some gardeners and homeowners, it is not parasitic and will not damage a healthy tree.  On a house it does not damage the fabric of the building but can provide a natural insulation that has the added benefit of removing toxins from the air.  Try to appreciate the benefits of ivy, and its nectar rich flowers that feed bees and other insects late in the season, and its berries which provide food for birds throughout the winter. 

HERBAL USES:

Actions: antibacterial, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory

Though ivy featured in ancient and mediaeval herbalism for breathing problems and is still used by the pharmaceutical industry in some cough remedies, it is not recommended for home use in internal preparations because of its toxicity.   Stick to using ivy for external remedies only.  

The leaves may be made into a soothing lotion or salve for tired muscles or pour some ivy infusion into a warm bath and soak.  A poultice or compress of ivy has some pain-relieving qualities when applied to the affected part in cases of neuralgia, rheumatism and neuritis.

An ivy leaf poultice applied to an infected wound will draw the pus from it.

A strong infusion of ivy leaves may be used as a hair rinse for treating headlice. 

If you have mould growing inside your home, and it is causing you problems, place a vase of ivy in the room, or grow ivy as a pot plant and it will reduce the incidence of mould by as much as 78%, according to research presented to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.  [12]

CAUTION:

For external use only.    Ivy is mildly toxic when eaten and can cause vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhoea.   The berries are more poisonous than the leaves, but both contain toxic saponins.    Contact with ivy can cause skin reactions in those who are sensitive.  

© Anna Franklin, from the forthcoming Hearth Witch’s Garden Herbal, Llewellyn, 2023


[1] http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_8701000/8701358.stm, accessed 17.11.21

[2] Compendium

[3] Compendium

[4] Compendium

[5] Compendium

[6] Troy Markus Linebaugh , Shamanism And The Ancient Greek Mysteries: The Western Imaginings Of The “Primitive Other” December, 2017, https://etd.ohiolink.edu/apexprod/rws_etd/send_file/send?accession=kent1512462129881859&disposition=inline, accessed 17.11.21

[7] Carl Ruck and Danny Staples, The World of Classical Myth, 1994

[8] Compendium

[9] Compendium

[10] Compendium

[11] i.  Opie & M.Tatem, A Dictionary of Superstition, Oxford University Press, 1989

[12] https://www.webmd.com/allergies/news/20051107/english-ivy-fix-allergies, accessed 17.11.21

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Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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