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The Rainbow Goddess: The Meaning of the Iris

The Rainbow Goddess: The Meaning of the Iris

by The Editor on June 30th


Like a great many flowers – see the lily for example – the mythology behind the Iris dates back to the ancient Greek civilisation, when flowers were often granted symbolic status as the emblems, or even the personifications, of gods or goddesses.

The iris, a pretty flower with a somewhat otherworldly appearance, means ‘rainbow’. And ceraintly the iris can be found in a wide array of different colours. Blue, white and yellow are the most enduringly popular among cut flower enthusiasts, but there are many more out there to be found.

Its roots in Greek culture come from a goddess which shared the flower’s name. Iris was the link between the world of the living and the world of the gods. In a notable parallel to Norse mythology, where the rainbow was the bridge between Asgard, home of the gods, and Midgard, home of men, Iris was seen as the personification of the rainbow. As her flower, the iris thus symbolises the link between the heavens and the earth.

Iris was not one of the ‘Twelve Olympians’ – those most important Greek gods and Goddesses who dwelled on the peak of mount Olympus. This is probably because her role had a certain overlap with that of Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Both were seen as a link between the gods of Olympus and the mortals of earth, as illustrated by the epic saga-poems of Homer: in his Iliad, Iris is considered the ‘divine messenger’ – but in Homer’s Odyssey, this role is filled by Hermes. Nonetheless, Iris has had a significant effect on our language and culture; our word ‘iridescent’ comes from this rainbow-hued goddess, as does the word ‘iris’ to mean the coloured part of the eye.

This gives the iris a fairly unique position amongst flower meanings: while other plants are used to communicate very specific messages, the iris can be seen to symbolise the act of communication itself: the link which allows one person or world to reach across the intervening space and speak to another.

Other cultures apart from the Greeks have regarded the iris as a potent symbol, giving it a plethora of meanings beyond its role as the rainbow goddess. Paintings of irises have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, and in medieval times the iris was adopted by the French monarchy, eventually giving rise to the fleur-de-lis which we know today as the symbol of France. While ‘fleur-de-lis’ literally means ‘flower of the lily’, this is a false trail: the name may originally come from ‘fleur de Luts’, meaning a ‘flower of the river Luts’, beside which numerous yellow irises grow. Today, the fleur-de-lis appears on French stamps, and is on the coat of arms of the King of Spain and the Grand Duke of Luxembourg.

Other meanings, derived from various folk etymologies and flower languages, which can be attached to the iris are royalty (for a dark blue iris), passion (for yellow), or courage. But the most significant role of the iris in western culture will probably always remain its link to its namesake, Iris, the Greek messenger between heaven and earth: the Rainbow Goddess.

Tags: lily, iris, flower

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