Wildlife in Cemeteries No 8 – the dark side of the Snowdrop

As we are still in lockdown, I thought that I would repost an earlier blog about a flower that is traditionally associated with cemeteries and churchyards. This is the time of year when they start to  make a welcome appearance as signs of Spring and this year, especially, I think that we need to know that better days are coming.

Snowdrops in St George’s churchyard, Beckenham.
©Carole Tyrrell

Imagine yourself in a gloomy medieval church on the festival of Candlemass. You, and your fellow parishioners, have each brought your candles to be blessed by the priest and, after the procession which will fill the church with light, they will all be placed in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary.   Candlemass marked the end of winter and the beginning of Spring and the blessing is to ward off evil spirits.  It traditionally falls on February 2 and is shared with the Celtic festival of Imbolc.  And in the churchyard outside you can see green shoots forcing their way up through the hard winter earth.  The snowdrop’s milk-white flowers show that spring is on its way as they begin to emerge into the light.

The placing of the lit candles in front of the Virgin Mary’s statue gave the snowdrop one of its many other names – Mary’s Tapers.  But there are many others such: Dingle Dangle, Candlemas Bells, Fair Maids of February, Snow Piercer, Death’s Flower and Corpse Flower.

Snowdrops, Brompton Cemetery, January 2018
©Carole Tyrrell

 

The snowdrop’s appearance has also inspired many comments . According to the Scottish Wildlife Trusts website they have been described as resembling 3 drops of milk hanging from a stem and they are also associated with the ear drop which is an old fashioned ear ring.  Anyone who has seen a group of snowdrops nodding in the wind will understand what they mean.   The snowdrop’s colour is associated with purity and they have been described as a shy flower with their drooping flowers.  However, the eco enchantments website reveals that the flower is designed in this way due:

‘to the necessity of their dusty pollen being kept dry and sweet in order to attract the few insects flying in winter.’

Snowdrops have been known since ancient times and, in 1597, appeared in Geralde’s ‘Great Herbal where they were called by the less than catchy name of ‘Timely Flowers Bulbous Violets’.  Its Latin name is Galanthus nivalis.  Galanthus means milk white flowers and the nivalis element translates as snowy according to the great botanist, Linnaeus in 1753.   In the language of flowers they’re associated with ‘Hope’ and the coming of spring and life reawakening.

However, yet despite all these positive associations, the elegant snowdrop has a much darker side. Monks were reputed to have brought them to the UK but it was the ever enthusiastic Victorians who copiously planted them in graveyards, churchyards and cemeteries which then linked them with death.  Hence the nickname name ‘Death’s Flower.’

They were described by Margaret Baker in the 1903 ‘Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore and the Occult of the World’ as:

‘so much like a corpse in a shroud that in some counties  the people will not have it in the house, lest they bring in death.‘

Snowdrops, St George’s Beckenham.
©Carole Tyrrell

So that’s where the ‘Corpse Flower’ nickname came from.

Snowdrops are also seen as Death’s Tokens and there are several regional folk traditions of connecting death with them. For example in the 19th and early 20th centuries it was considered very unlucky to bring the flower into the house from outside as it was felt that a death would soon occur.  The most unlucky snowdrop was that with a single bloom on its stem.    Other folk traditions were described in a 1913 folklore handbook which claims that if a snowdrop was brought indoors it will make the cows milk watery and affect the colour of the butter.  Even as late as 1969 in ‘The Folklore of Plants’  it was stated that having a snowdrop indoors could affect the number of eggs that a sitting chicken might hatch.  A very powerful plant if these are all to be believed – you have been warned!

It’s amazing that this little flower has so many associations and legends connected with it but I always see it as a harbinger of spring, rebirth and an indication of warmer days to come.

But the snowdrop also has a surprise.  This came courtesy of the Urban Countryman page on Facebook – not all social media is time wasting!  If you very gently turn over a snowdrop bloom you will find that the underside is even prettier and they also vary depending on the snowdrop variety.

Here is a small selection from my local churchyard and one from Kensal Green cemetery.

So don’t underestimate the snowdrop – it’s a plant associated with life and death but watch out for your hens and the colour of your butter if you do decide to tempt fate…..

 

©Carole Tyrrell text and photos unless otherwise stated

References:

http://www.plantlore.com

http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/naturestudies/bright-in-winters-depths-why-the-flawless-flower-of-candlemas-is-ajoy-forever-8483967

http://www.flowermeaning.com/snowdrop-flower-meaning

http://www.ecoenchantments.co.uk/mysnowdropmagicpage.html

https://scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk/2014/03/natures-death-tokens/

 

 

 

 

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Symbol of the Month – The Woman from Samaria or a Greek goddess?

The Caryer headstone in 2011 , All Saints Frindsbury Photo Kent Archaeological Society

I featured part of this symbol on the Caryer headstone in an earlier Symbol of the Month – the All seeing Eye.    The Kent Archaeological Society website had given me the epitaph and also a reference to the Woman of Samaria with a  question mark next to it.

In March 2020, I visited All Saints, Frindsbury where the Caryer headstone is and looked at it and my photos and wasn’t quite sure if they were right.   Then I looked again at their photo of it taken in 2011 and what a difference 9 years makes!

As you can see, erosion has blurred a lot of the fine detail seen in the 2011 photo and it’s now hard to make out the image of the woman with such clarity now.  It doesn’t help that the headstone is leaning over so making it quite hard to get a decent photo.    In the 2020 image some of the detail has been lost. The stone is darker but. despite the erosion, it is a wonderful example of the stone carver’s art and skill.  This would have been an expensive headstone.

So what have we got? In the 2011 photo, A glamorous, somewhat scantily clad woman who was really well carved. She wears classical style diaphanous robes and wisps of lie across her exposed leg. She has her hair up in a Classical hairstyle and is sitting side on to the viewer wearing a pensive expression. She seems to be sitting on pebbles – is she at a river or at a beach? She holds a water jug and there are clouds above her.  The all seeing eye of God is on the other side of the headstone which may have been comforting to those left behind.

The reference to the Woman from Samaria being a possible source  is. I think, that the lady is holding a water jug and seems to be near water. So does she carry the waters of eternal life that Christ promised in the Bible? Or is she just a scantily clad woman holding a water jug?

The Woman from Samaria appears in the Gospel of John 4: verses 4-26.   Here they are:

There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus saith unto her, Give me to drink.

 (For his disciples were gone away unto the city to buy meat.)

 Then saith the woman of Samaria unto him, How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.

Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.

The woman saith unto him, Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water?

Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle?

Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again:

But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.

The woman saith unto him, Sir, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw. King James Version

The meeting between the woman and Christ has inspired many artists and here are two interpretations.   But I had my doubts.   For instance, there’s no well visible on the headstone and, although she could be seen as bathing in the water of eternal life, the living waters referred to in the Bible, with a clear reference to resurrection it just didn’t feel right.   It also felt a bit tortuous to try and fit it all in.

Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) Shared under Wikipedia Creative Commons
Jesus at the Samaritan Woman – Gervais Drouet Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

But there are other images of female water bearers and one of the most obvious is associated with the Zodiac sign of Aquarius.  She is often depicted holding a water jug aloft or pouring from it.  But no, I carried on looking. Sometimes researching symbols is like detective work!

But there is another symbol that involves a woman as water bearer and that is the Zodiac sign of Aquarius.  In fact it is known as the water bearer.  

However, there is also the Greek goddess, Hebe, or the cup bearer. She was the daughter of Zeus and was the cupbearer for the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus.  Hebe served nectar and ambrosia to them until she married Heracles.  She also had influence over eternal youth and the ability to restore youth to mortals.  In fact, Hebe comes from the Greek word meaning youth or prime of life.

Statue of Hebe Antonio Canova (1757-1822) Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

She was a popular subject in art during 1750-1880 and that would fit in with the date of the headstone. Hannah was the first to buried there and she died in 1809.   There many depictions of Hebe and in fact it was well known that all that was needed to summon her was a floaty white dress, some flowers in the hair and cup to hold. A setting in the clouds helped as well and maybe our Frindsbury lady isn’t sitting on pebbles but on puffy clouds.  In some portraits of Hebe a degree of nudity was allowed.    She was often depicted with wings which can be seen behind the figure on the headstone.  In art Hebe often appears with an eagle. Hebe also had her own personal cult and figures of her were popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries for fountains.

Painting of Hebe – Jacques Louis Dubois (1768-1843) Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

So I think that the figure is a classical one and probably based on Hebe.  Our glamorous lady in the floating draperies may be a reference to the deceased always remaining eternally young in death.  Hannah was only 30 when she died but that wasn’t unusual in an age of low mortality.   She is protected by the watchful Eye of God. It’s interesting to see a pagan symbol beside a more conventionally Christian one.

We will never know the inspiration behind the image used on this headstone.   It may have been skillfully copied from a printed image or painting and may have had personal significance to her husband who is also buried there together with their young son.  It would have been the height  of Classicism and it’s interesting to find it in a country churchyard.  It is sad to see much it has eroded over the years but one see the confidence of stone masons at that time in tackling subjects such as this.

So, in my opinion, our lady may not be the Woman from Samaria but a representation of Hebe.  But of course she could just be another elegant lady showing a bit of leg as she sits for all eternity above the Caryer family.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

References and further reading

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samaritan_woman_at_the_well#:~:text=The%20woman%20appears%20in%20John,was%20sitting%20by%20the%20well.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John%204%3A7-29&version=KJV

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebe_(mythology)

Happy New Year with another version of the Handshake symbol.

Hello all – I think I can just about get away with still wishing you all a Happy New Year!

Well, here we are in another lockdown and so I won’t be poking about in churchyards or cemeteries for a while.

So I took the opportunity to look through my photos from last year just before the first lockdown when I could still be out and about in local churchyards and cemeteries which I haven’t previously posted.

The above headstone is from All Saints in Frindsbury near Strood. The church perches on top of a hill looking down on the town and its churchyard was recommended to me by an old friend. There were some spectacular views of the River Medway down below as its sapphire stream glinted in the Spring sunshine.. When I got there, the trimming of the long grass around the memorials had literally stopped in mid cut and I had to be careful where I walked. I didn’t want to trip over kerb stones hidden in the long grass.

I found this and, although the shaking hands motif is usually associated with a man and wife saying goodbye, here it looks as though a mother and son are saying goodbye. The hands are those of a man and a woman and, although, the father has been added on at the bottom, the son was the first to be buried there. William Masters died young at only 20 and his mother died 22 years later.

In the shaking hands, the deceased is traditionally holding the hand of the living as they part. It can mean goodbye or the deceased guiding the living into eternal life later. It is usually associated with marriage with the visible cuffs delineating them. The frilly hand on the right hand side is a woman and the left hand one is the man with the plainer, more formal cuff.

It was an interesting churchyard and was also in the middle of two cemeteries – the East and the West. These were mainly 19th and 20th century burials but a bright Spring carpet of primroses and foaming white Blackthorn blossom made them appear colourful and bright.

I will be discussing one of the more enigmatic symbols that I found in All Saints in the next blog.