Iris on saffron wings arrayed with dew
Of various colours through the sunbeams flew.
Here in North Carolina, the irises are early this year, and are now coming into their full, spectacular bloom. Regarded as one of the top ten love flowers, the Spring iris shines with beautiful radiance and is a traditional bloom for symbolizing good news and fortunate times.
The Greek Goddess Iris is a Goddess of sea and sky. Her father, Thaumas, “the wondrous,” is a God of the sea, and Her mother Elektra “the amber,” is a cloud-nymph and one of the Oceanids (She is not that other Elektra, daughter of Agamemnon). Iris’ sisters are the less appealing Harpies.
In the writings of the earlier poets, and later in Theocritus and Virgil, Iris is an unmarried Maiden Goddess; but according to later writers, she was married to the wind God Zephyrus, and with Him became the mother of Eros.
The name “iris” contains a double meaning, being connected both with the Greek word, iris, which literally means “the rainbow,” and eiris, meaning “messenger.” As the personification of the rainbow, She represents the union of Earth and Sky. Thus, She is a message bearer between the heavens and Earth.
The Goddess Iris is generally depicted barefoot and wearing either a short or long tunic (chiton) or a long robe (peplos). Although She does not appear in Homer’s Odyssey, twice in the Illiad, She is described as khrusopteros – golden-winged, so She is usually portrayed with wings.
Like Hermes, with whom She is also associated, She is a winged messenger and carries a caduceus, as She conveys divine messages to mortals. Her favored mode of travel between these worlds is on the rainbow. She also travels with ease through the seas, as well as to the Underworld of the dead.
In mythology, the Goddess Iris acts as the personal messenger of Hera and Zeus. She was Hera’s bearer of bad news to Menelaus, advising him that Paris had ran away with his wife, Helen. Of course, this is what started the Trojan War.
Iris is also often depicted holding a pitcher. When quarrels would come up among the Gods (and if you know your mythology, you know this happened rather a lot!), Zeus would send Iris to the river Styx in the Underworld to fill a golden jug with its waters.
Zeus would then demand that all swear by the water of the Styx. If any of the Divine Ones then drank the water and was untrue, He or She would fall down spiritless, voiceless, and breathless for a year. Then, after spending a year in helpless illness, the God or Goddess would be banished for nine more years from the councils and feasts of Olympus, unable to rejoin the Gods until the tenth year.
So, the cup of Iris is a powerful tool for truth-telling and integrity.
The Greeks planted iris flowers at grave sites, possibly because the Goddess Iris was also believed to guide the souls of dead women to the underworld, just as Hermes conducted the souls of men.
It is no coincidence that in the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, irises are prominent in the Temperance card, a card which also features a winged cup-bearer. In most decks, Temperance is the card that follows Death. And Temperance, like Iris, is a messenger of the divine, mediating between heaven and earth. In fact, in some older Tarot decks, there is a rainbow arcing across the background sky.
As you might expect, in the beautiful Victorian practice of flower meanings, the iris is a symbol of communication. As one gardening writer has explained, “With its effervescent colors, iris is more than just a flower, but is like a dream fulfilled, a lyric turned into a melody. Send iris to pass the good news, ‘I am in love with you. Will you be mine?’”
Irises are sometimes called flag, sweet flag, or sword flag. This recalls, not only their obvious shape, but their ancient association as symbols of heraldry and royalty.
The iris was a royal symbol used by the ancient kings of Babylon and Assyria. The Egyptians placed iris on the brow of the Sphinx and on the scepters of their Pharaohs.
The famed Fleur de Lys, also known as the “Lily of France,” is interchangeably the lily or the iris. Its earliest association may date back to the Merovingian King Clovis, who reportedly wore an iris flower in his helmet as he rode to victory in battle. It became the custom among the ancient Franks to proclaim their new king by elevating him upon a shield and placing in his hand a reed of iris before giving him the scepter.
Reverence and love for the iris flower is not limited only to the European traditions. In Japan, the iris has its own lore and celebrations (more about this, perhaps, at a later date).
Alas, very few traces remain to us of how the ancient Greeks may have given honor to Her. We do know that She was offered cakes made of wheat and honey and dried figs.
Few statues of Iris have been preserved, but we find Her frequently represented on vases and in bas-relief carvings, dressed in Her tunic, with wings attached to Her shoulders, and carrying the herald’s staff in Her left hand. She also frequently appears flying, with wings attached to Her shoulders and sandals, with both the staff and the pitcher in Her hands.
We remember lovely Iris not only with the flowers named for Her. Our word, iridescence, is derived from Her name. And She is also a part of our own bodies, within the organ that always reveals our truth, whether our words do or not. For it is Her name that is given to the circle of color in which rests the pupil of human and animal eyes.
I wish for you that the beauty of Iris may fill your eyes each day, and may She deliver to you only Her most tender and happy rainbow messages.