Ivy has an interesting history full of folklore and tradition. The Greeks and Romans held the plant in high esteem. It is a symbol of fidelity and love because of its clinging nature and in many cultures it is the emblem of fertility. It was often seen as protection against evil forces. Symbolism of this plant is found in both pagan and Christian cultures.
Ivy is a climbing vine that attaches itself to stone, brick, concrete and other surfaces as well as to trees that are dead or living. It climbs by way of small tendrils that grow from the vine. The vine itself can become large and each tendril can send out another branch. It does not take very long for ivy to completely grow up a wall and cover it. Although it is not likely it will damage a brick wall--in fact, it may protect it from dampness and weather--it will be invasive to roofing and windows. The leaves are usually three-lobed with a heart-shaped bottom. The leaves are shiny and can be green or variegated green and white or cream. It is considered an evergreen plant but can lose its leaves in the winter, only to come back in the spring.
Greek and Roman History
Roman poets were crowned with a wreath of ivy so they would think clearly and creatively. Virgil spoke of the gold ivy that had yellow berries; this ivy is all but extinct today. Brides and grooms in Greece wore crowns of ivy as a representation of fidelity. Ivy is the plant dedicated to Bacchus, God of wine or intoxication. It is said that a handful of bruised ivy leaves boiled in wine will make it so the wine cannot intoxicate the drinker.
Osiris was the god of the sun, health and agriculture. He was married to the goddess of the moon, Isis. He had a jealous brother named Seth who was the god of the dessert. Seth hated Osiris because his domain was fertile and his was bleak and barren. Seth tricked Osiris into going into a sarcophagus, where he locked him in and threw the sarcophagus into the Nile. Ancient Egyptians believed that their spirits would not go to the afterlife unless there was a physical body that was prepared and buried properly. Isis was happy when the sarcophagus was found floating in a bay and returned to her. Seth was very angry and he stole his brother’s body, cut it up in 14 pieces and hid them in 14 areas of Egypt. Isis found all but one piece and brought them back to Osiris’s mother, who resurrected him, except for his genitals, which were not found. Osiris became the god of the underworld and ivy became symbolic of him for two reasons. One was because of the fertility issue and the other was that he was immortal.
Ivy was thought to protect individuals from evil spirits. Many old churches are covered with ivy on the outside. Families would also plant ivy outside their homes in hopes that it would protect it from any evil, either natural or spiritual.
Ivy is often associated with Christmas and is thought of as the male counterpart of the female holly. This comes from pagan folklore and the use of both plants during Yule. Both plants are immortalized in the song "The Holly and The Ivy."
Pagan women carried ivy with them to promote fertility. Ivy was also thought to bring good luck to the carrier and ensure fidelity of their loved ones. Wands were decorated with ivy or made from ivy wood for use in nature spells and fertility ceremonies.