My Celtic Ivy art - plus I explore the ivy symbolism, stories, myth, meaning and folklore that's shaped the way we understand ivy today...
And climbing walls and buildings where, far from common misconceptions, it actually seems to prove beneficial keeping buildings dry and warm in the winter and cool in the summer – and it’s certainly seen as very lucky to have ivy covering your home!
Two species of ivy are considered native to the British Isles:
The name ‘ivy’ that we’re familiar with comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘ifeg’.
Celtic tree calendar: 30 September – 27 October
Ivy is unusual amongst plants as it starts to flower in late Summer to Autumn, providing late nectar for insects – and fruits in the Winter through to Spring with tiny dark berries which are a favourite with animals and birds to sustain them through the hardest winter months.
Our earliest associations with ivy are from the Ancient Greeks and Romans…
Ivy is most strongly associated with the god of wine and merriment, Dionysus (Greeks) or Bacchus (Romans) who both wore crowns of ivy leaves and were often depicted covered with ivy leaves.
The Greek name for ivy is ‘Cissos’ – the name of a young girl who danced and danced one night until she dropped at the feet of the god Dionysus who turned her body to ivy.
The Roman god Bacchus had a sect of female priestesses called the Maenads who carried staffs wrapped in ivy leaves and topped in a pinecone. They drank a toxic concoction of ivy leaves, pine sap, and fly-agaric mushrooms so that they could experience wildly ecstatic visions.
In the ancient world, ivy was commonly added to wine, which made it stronger and allowed the drinker to have ‘prophetic insight’ but also alleviated some of the worst after-effects of any over-indulgence.
Ivy continued to be associated with wine and ale – in Saxon times, people boiled ivy leaves in wine or ale to enhance the flavour and reduce its intoxicating qualities.
Wine goblets were often made of ivy wood and the sign for a tavern in the middle ages in Britain was an upright pole wrapped in ivy, called an ‘ale-bush’.
Later, folk would take a little vinegar that ivy berries had been dissolved in before drinking alcohol – and after drinking, have some water that ivy leaves had been boiled in, so as to lessen the hangover effects.
I have no idea if this was effective – but at this point, it’s worth saying that it’s not advisable to take ivy internally as it’s considered highly toxic and poisonous and it’s possible to do great damage if self-administered without the advice of a qualified medical herbalist.
Ivy is also associated with the Phrygian, Greek, and Roman solar deity and god of vegetation, Attis – consort of the mother goddess Cybele – who represents the death and rebirth of the natural world associated with the yearly solar cycle.
Ivy is also considered sacred to the Ancient Greek moon-goddesses Pasiphae, Ariadne, and Artemis.
Similarly, ivy is linked to the Celtic goddess Arianrhod, sometimes called the goddess of the silver wheel, representing the turning of the year – she is considered a moon goddess of fertility and rebirth and lives in a palace called ‘Caer Arianrhod’, the name the Welsh give to the ‘Corona Borealis’ star constellation (‘The Northern Crown’), considered in myth as a heavenly castle spiralled by stars.
Ivy is strongly associated with the feminine through these goddesses and through the winter solstice tradition linking the masculine holly (representing the Holly King and the sun) to the feminine ivy – the moon, and the green goddess/mother goddess or fairy queen.
In medieval Britain, there was a winter solstice tradition of pageantry with a little boy wearing a crown of holly and a little girl with a crown of ivy – symbolising the masculine and feminine, the sun and the moon, fertility, life and rebirth – all common themes for ivy and for the winter months.
Even in modern times, we still sing the traditional folk carol ‘The Holly and The Ivy’, and we still decorate our homes at Christmas with both holly and ivy.
Churches have used holly and ivy for their Christmas décor since at least the 15th century, with holly representing Jesus and ivy, the Virgin Mary.
A lone ivy leaf, left after the church decorations were completed was meant to signify the birth of twins.
It was believed that ivy should only ever be brought into the house for Christmas and was unlucky at any other time – along with all the other Christmas decorations, you should be sure to remove the ivy by Twelfth Night, though!
On New Year’s Eve, you could lay an ivy leaf in water and leave it there, returning to it on Twelfth Night – if the ivy was green and healthy, it augured that the upcoming year would be happy. If, however, the ivy leaf had turned black, illness would come. Worst of all, if the ivy leaf was decayed and disintegrating, an untimely death was foretold!
Ivy was seen as a lucky plant, especially for women. To wear or carry ivy could ensure fidelity between a couple and bring fertility, especially for older women.
A house covered in ivy was believed to be lucky – the ivy would bind the family together and bring wealth to the inhabitants. Ivy also protected the householders from witchcraft and the Evil Eye!
If ivy on a house withered and died, disaster would unfold – Welsh folklore said, specifically, that the house would pass to others.
Ivy leaves swept around an area were thought to cleanse an area of negativity and ill-fortune, and bring good luck instead.
But you should take care not to use the ivy leaves picked from a church! To pick just a single ivy leaf from a church meant sickness would befall you!
Young girls would do love spells with ivy leaves and put an ivy leaf in their pockets - and then the first young man they saw or spoke to would (potentially!) become their husband.
In a more sinister divination spell, at Halloween, a family would each write their name on an ivy leaf – when they returned in the morning, if any of the names had changed to the shape of a coffin, it was said that death was coming.
Ivy growing on a young girl’s grave was said to mean that she’d died of a broken heart…
While dreaming of ivy may mean that your lover was unfaithful or that your love was clinging.
Ivy is largely seen as poisonous, but the berries have been eaten in the past (presumably in quite small quantities) including during the German Occupation of the Channel Islands from 1940-45.
Ivy was frequently used for folk remedies, especially for corns – an ivy leaf was kept close against the corn, or the corn was bathed in ivy-water.
Ivy-water was also used to cool and soothe eczema and other skin rashes and was mixed with lard to make a salve to heal burns.
Medicinally, ivy has historically been used to heal wounds, sores, sunburns and skin irritations. Ivy-water was used as an eye-wash to heal eye infections – and powdered ivy leaf was used as a snuff for congestion. Parents would also give their children ivy-wood bowls to drink from when they had whooping cough.
While if you were experiencing hair-loss, you could try wearing a wreath of ivy.
In Medieval times, physicians used ‘spongia somnifera’ as a (likely crude) anaesthetic – a sea sponge was soaked in opium, henbane, lettuce seed and other opiates, and ivy leaf.
Ivy vinegar was also used in an attempt to prevent disease in the Great Plague of London (1665-6).
Medical herbalists have also used ivy for gout, rheumatic pain, whooping cough, bronchitis, painful joints, skin eruptions, neuralgia, toothache, warts, burns, and cellulitis – but as a herb with strong expectorant, anti-spasmodic, and cardiac actions, self-medication is never recommended as an excess could cause diarrhea, vomiting, skin irritation, constriction of the blood vessels, and slowing of the heart rate – one for the professional and qualified herbalists only!
Animals, too, benefitted from the use of ivy – and ivy was seen as a tempting and nutritious food for sheep and cattle, especially through winter, and could also cure the animals of disease, including, it’s said, foot and mouth.
The use of ivy for animals is a use seen from Celtic times. In early Celtic writings, Oengus calls ivy a “suitable place for cows,” and Morainn and Cuchulainn also refer to its valuable use as winter fodder, describing ivy as “greener than pastures … the sweetest of grass” and “sating of multitudes, corn”, respectively.
Ivy was also used to protect cattle from fairy enchantments – so milkmaids would wear ivy for its magical protection.
In certain areas of Britain, the last sheaf of the harvest was called the ‘Ivy Girl’ and decorated with lace, ribbons, and (of course) ivy. She was carried home triumphantly as a symbol of continuing plenty for the farm or village. Sometimes, the ‘Ivy Girl’ was given ironically or as a kind of consolation prize to the farmer who was last to bring his harvest home.
As a flower essence remedy, ivy is used to enable the giving and receiving of love and support, connection, understanding of group consciousness, and for letting go and giving space for oneself and loved ones.
And on a more practical level, the juice of stewed ivy leaves has been used to successfully brush into fabric to ‘dry-clean’ clothes.
Ivy Symbolism & Meaning
Ivy is an autumn and winter plant – a plant of fertility and rebirth with a feminine energy.
She is a healing and nourishing plant that gives and receives support and provides insight – going her own way, yet forming connections as part of a community.
Ivy is friendship and fidelity, the loving ties of partnership and family – a plant to see us through hard times with loving kindness.
Creating my Celtic Ivy & Tree Calendar Ivy Artworks
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I drew separate sprigs and leaves of ivy in pen and marker and hand-lettered words with meaning for ivy so that I could put these together digitally in order to be able to make my Celtic Ivy artwork....
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Apologies for the reflections on the screen photos!
How to Buy my Celtic Ivy Artwork
I've actually created two versions of my Celtic Ivy art:
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How to Buy my Celtic Ivy Art Prints & Products
You can buy my Celtic Ivy art as wall art prints and home products from my Redbubble store:
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More about my stockists here - plus why I decided to go with print-on-demand for my art...
Explore more Celtic art here and more Celtic tree art here..
Learn all about the Celtic Tree Calendar and see my other trees here...
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Please note that the information in this piece is for entertainment only and should not be used to diagnose or prescribe for health purposes.
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