An Artist's Quest

Calla Lily: Siren and Saint and everything in between

The Calla Lilies are bursting and abundant, blessing this spring day with their simplicity of form and boldness of spirit.  When I walked into the Chapel here at The Bishop’s Ranch Easter Sunday a gorgeous armful of said flowers graced the front altar. The bundle was set loosely in a large and lovely urn of white ceramic, each beauty craning her slender green neck, tilting her white chin, peering shyly around her sisters with one fierce unblinking yellow eye.

Later I googled Calla Lily and found that it is a native of Southern Africa but is easily cultivated and is now found throughout the world.  So easy in fact that in western Australia it is considered an invasive species a toxic weed!  Throughout the rest of the world it graces gardens and pathways and brings to mind visions of spring and abundance and in the Christian world, Easter.  Clearly it successfully left it’s mooring in Southern Africa to wander the world fairly early in the history of humans because the Calla Lily has been mythologized through the ages.

There is a Greek myth that says the lily originated from the breast milk of Greek Goddess, Hera. The legend goes that Zeus fathered Hercules with a mortal woman, Alceme. He wanted his son to partake of divinity and become immortal. So, he brought Hercules to Hera after drugging her to sleep. He placed baby Hercules at her breast and Hercules began nursing. When Hera got up from her sleep, she was shocked after seeing a baby nursing her. She flung the baby away from her. In so doing, some of her milk gushed across the heavens and formed the Milky Way. A few drops fell on earth and these drops sprang to form asthe Calla Lily. The Roman legend goes farther saying that when Venus arose from the sea-foam she saw the lily and overcame with a pang of jealously. Venus perceived the snow-white beauty of the lily as a competitor to her beauty. She cursed the lily and a huge, heavy pistil sprang from the lily’s center. Thus, Calla Lily symbolized the association of Venus and the Satyrs, who personify lust and sexuality.

How the Calla Lily, after such fecundity and vengeance came to symbolize purity, holiness and faith in the Christian tradition is hard to say. The flower has significant religious meaning it is believed that the white Calla Lily is a symbol of Jesus’ Resurrection.  As the shape of the blooms bear a resemblance to trumpets, and trumpets stand for victory; often the white calla lily was seen as the flower of the Archangel Gabriel, and the white calla lily his announcing trumpet. The white calla lily is also associated with the Virgin Mary and angels, representing divine purity, holiness and faith.

In our more secular rituals the Calla Lily frequently graces both weddings and funerals as a symbol of purity, rebirth and renewal.

And so this complicated flower wanders the world from weed to wonder, from siren to saint.  How can a flower so simple in structure be so completely complicated and contradictory in human consciousness?

As always I welcome your comments and will share my musings in both picture and prose on Friday.

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