Easter lilies

By Glennis Byron
April 4, 2023
Filed in Flowers
5 minutes

I dropped into the shops this morning and found myself assaulted by a strong whiff of lily. Combined with the rows of chocolate bunnies, it was a dead give away: Easter is coming.

The lily has become the flower associated with the Christian celebration of Easter because of its long associations with renewal, rebirth and purity. In the ancient world, it was used in funerals and draped over the bodies of the dead as a symbol of immortality. In Greek mythology, the flower becomes associated with Hera, Queen of Heaven and sister/wife of Zeus. Hera is tricked into suckling Heracles, son of Zeus and Alcmene – one in an endless series of mortals with whom Zeus dallied – in order to give Heracles the immortality carried in her milk. When she awakens and discovers the child, she tears him from her breast. The milk spills through the heavens, creating the Milky Way, and where drops fall to the earth, fields of lilies spring up.

This association of Hera with the lily then gets passed on to the Christian Queen of Heaven, the Virgin Mary, and, from at least the fifth century onwards, the lily repeatedly appears in representations of the Annunciation, now serving as a sign of Mary’s purity. The composition of these scenes remains remarkably consistent: either the Angel Gabriel carries a lily, or a pot or vase of lilies is placed between Gabriel and Mary.

At the same time as the lily first becomes associated with Mary, Christian mythology begins to link the lily with Christ. The lily springs from Christ’s tears in the garden of Gethsemane. Or the lily springs from his footprints after he rose from the dead. Or (I guess this is what they call gilding the lily) the lily springs from his blood as he hangs upon the cross.

The last of these stories leads in turn to the medieval tradition of the lily crucifix, which depicts Christ crucified upon a lily, connecting the Passion with the Annunciation, and reflecting the medieval belief that these events took place on the same day of the year, 25 March. Only twelve such images of a lily crucifix are extant.

Perhaps the most interesting of all the lily crucifixes is found in the late fourteenth-century Llanbeblig Book of Hours, where Mary is shown at the moment of the Annunciation with a vase of lilies that incorporates Christ on the cross.

But what kind of lily was it?

So, there we have it: lilies come to be inextricably entwined with Easter long before bonnets and bunnies. But what kind of lily?

The one usually labelled Easter lily is Lilium longiflorum (left), commonly known as the trumpet lily. (That’s the one I got such a whiff of in the shops.) But since this lily is endemic to the Ryukyu Islands off the coast of Japan and was unknown in the west prior to the later 1800s, its connection with Easter seems to be little more than a marketing strategy. It couldn’t be the lily depicted in those early scenes of the Annunication or the Passion. But … it is very easily forced by flower growers to meet the Easter market.

It seems much more likely that the lily associated with the Annunciation and the Passion, and therefore with Easter, is Lilium candidum, native to the Middle East and widely naturalised in Southern Europe.

This might well be one of the oldest of all cultivated flowers, with representations of Lilium candidum dating from at least 1550 BC, when it appeared on a wall at the palace of Minos at Knossos on Crete. The Romans cultivated this lily for food and medicine (apparently it’s good for corns) as well as for decoration, and devised early hothouses, using hot water, to grow it out of season.

Candidum means ‘shining’, and it was not until the nineteenth century that it assumed the common name of Madonna lily. While often used to decorate churches, however, lilies were not a particularly popular garden plant with the Victorians. Gertrude Jekyll (who actually wrote a book on them) did grudgingly admit that these foreign imports were acceptable in gardens, as long as they ‘behaved like natives’.

Calla lilies

Before you pick your pot of Lilium longiflorum for Easter, it’s worth considering the fragrance and whether you (and others) will appreciate this wafting through your home. Many find the fragrance overpowering and unpleasant and this is perhaps why the unscented calla lily is sometimes substituted, not a lily at all, but native to South Africa and belonging to the genus Zantedeschia.

The calla’s distinctive form, of course, could make it highly appropriate for the season in that it recalls some of the pagan antecedents of Easter and its links with the spring equinox, ideas of renewal, fertility and fecundity. With its curving interior and phallic spadix, the calla evokes, as Georgia O’Keeffe’s close-ups of the flower famously emphasise, both male and female genitalia. I suppose we could say then that it fits nicely with other pagan symbols of fertility that came to be associated with Easter, like the egg and rabbit.

Death and decay

Given the scent, it’s no wonder the lily played an important role in funerals beginning with the ancient world: it could help mask the smell of decay. And increasingly, the smell of the lily has become associated in the minds of many with death and funerals. It’s all a matter of taste of course. Some people love it. Some people, as this final bit of lily trivia might suggest, seem to love it precisely because of these associations .

There’s actually a perfume with lily top notes called (I kid you not) Death & Decay.

Launched in 2014, Death & Decay is described on the Fragrantica website as ‘A loving, reverent study of pure, sweet lilies and funereal silences’. Even less appealingly, the Lush website describes the smell as ‘funeral lilies just about to fall into decay; blousey and overripe’. One for the Goths, I guess. This Easter, I think I’ll be sticking to my daffodils.

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  • That was great ,I loved the ending .xx

    • Avatar photo
      Glennis Byron

      thanks, Lucy!So you’ll be buying a bottle of Death and Decay? haha

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