The Garden Gate: Easter is the lily’s time to shine

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

The practice of placing floral groupings in temples began with the Chinese Buddhists in the 6th century.

Flowers have been important symbols of worship for religions worldwide for many centuries, even long before the Christian era.

They can be seen in secular and religious occasions, especially joyful ones like weddings, and in all places of worship and ceremonial occasions, such as churches, temples and synagogues.

Festivals of ancient gods were marked by strewing flowers and their petals, as well as adorning statues with wreaths.

Sweet herbs and rushes were strewn on church floors in medieval Europe.

Even after the Reformation, when much of the imagery and symbolism was stripped from the church, flowers were allowed to remain.

The lotus is one of the more ancient flowers with religious significance. This tropical water lily has been held sacred in both the Near and Far East since many religious beliefs began. It has an uninterrupted symbolic history of more than 5,000 years.

The Egyptian lotus was dedicated to Horus, god of the sun. It was the emblem of fertility and the life-giving Nile. It was also the symbol of resurrection because it closed its petals and sank to the bottom at night, but rose again to the water’s surface and reopened in the morning.

The lotus was long venerated in Assyria and Greece, where it was used in architectural ornamentation. It was the symbol of light in Persia and the emblem of mystery in Nepal, Tartary and Tibet.

It is revered by the Hindus. The tradition is that Brahma was born from a lotus flower, and it is the symbol of Buddha in India.

The eight-petaled lotus is the emblem of the past, present and future in both China and Japan because it has a bud, blossom and seed pods all at the same time.

Myrtle was one of the first sacred plants to people of the ancient Eastern Mediterranean area. The ancient Hebrews revered it and covered the tent of the tabernacle with blooming boughs. Egyptians used it to symbolize Hathor, goddess of love and joy. In Greece and Rome, it was sacred to Aphrodite and Venus, the goddesses of love.

Myrtle was the symbol of love and marriage. Roman brides to this day wear myrtle on their wedding days.

When the Jesuits arrived in South America during the 16th century, they were amazed to find a blooming vine which they believed to be the same flower seen growing on the cross in one of St. Francis of Assisi’s visions.

They named it the passion flower. The various parts of the flower are supposed the represent symbols and instruments of Christ’s passion.

Francisco Pizzaro found the Incas growing giant sunflowers when he arrived in Peru in 1632. The Incas venerated these as images of their sun god.

Sunflower seeds were sacred food, and they still are to some Southwest Indian tribes.

In Harold and Alma Moldenke’s wonderful book, “Plants of the Bible,” a good deal of attention is paid to flowers represented during this holy season — and of Holy Week in particular.

These include the palms and flowers of Palm Sunday, the crown of thorns and Hyssop of Good Friday and, of course, the symbolism of the lilies of Easter.

As the poinsettia is to Christmas, so is the lily to Easter.

Lilies have a venerable history, much of which is related to other kinds of historical and religious meaning.

The lilium of the Near East has long been a symbol of motherhood in Sumerian, Assyrian and Egyptian mythology.

It also symbolizes many goddesses of ancient religions. In the Minoan period of Crete, about 300 B.C., it was the sacred symbol of Britomartis, the Great Mother.

At the same time, it was the emblem of hunters, fishermen and sailors.

The lily was the flower of Hera, goddess of the moon, in the heyday of ancient Greece. It was a special symbol of women’s lives, protecting their marriages, childbirths and fortunes of all kinds.

In some ancient religions, the lily symbolized earth and air. What a versatile plant it is!

According to ancient Semitic folklore, the lily sprang from the tears of Eve when she was banished from the Garden of Eden.

In later Christian lore, it was said that the lily was yellow until the day the Virgin Mary stooped to pick it.

The lily represents purity, chastity and innocence in Christian symbolism. Above all, it is the symbol of the Resurrection. The white Madonna lily is the special flower of Mary.

It was invariably pictured in any Middle Ages painting depicting the Annunciation.

To “gild the lily” means to improve upon perfection.

Oregon is known as the Lily State. Chapters of the National Lily Society are constantly multiplying.

In John Gerard’s famous “Herball,” the Madonna lily is referred to as “Juno’s rose.”

We are beginning to see signs of spring, to our joy. And the lilies will soon be blooming to adorn our churches, homes and lives.

We look forward to Easter — and the coming flowers of spring and summer.

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.