While the rose might enjoy the most numerous and prominent associations with the Christian religion, the lily-of-the-valley also bears singular significance in Christianity. And like the rose, the lily-of-the-valley is connected most strongly with (Catholic) Christianity’s two central figures—Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.
The lily-of-the-valley, or Convallaria majalis, demonstrates that fatal combination of beauty and danger which creates an aura of Romance around many a flower; not only does it release a fragrant scent and boast white, bell-shaped blooms, it is also dangerous or even deadly when consumed.
The lily-of-the-valley is colloquially known as ‘Our Lady’s tears’ or ‘Mary’s tears,’ in reference to Christian legends concerning the Virgin’s tears at the crucifixion of her son, which miraculously produced the flower as they fell upon the earth at the foot of the cross. Other legends allege that the flower sprung from the tears Eve first shed upon being exiled from the Garden of Eden. (The Virgin Mary is sometimes referred to as the “New Eve”, and so even in the latter case the lily-of-the-valley appears connected to Mariology, or the theology of Mary.)
Virgin Mary statue crowned with roses and lily-of-the-valley at a May Crowning ceremony in Wisconsin in 1959.
Image Source: Wisconsin Historical Society
But the lily-of-the-valley does not only bear this particularly Marian character (indeed, some 40 other flowers are also connected with the Virgin). This flower is also connected to the figure of the Man-God Himself, especially the Second Coming, which is both the end of the world and the reestablishment of the earthly paradise, just as the lily-of-the-valley, blooming in spring, heralds the birth of spring and death of winter. The lily-of-the-valley has been connected to the Savior for a variety of reasons, mostly owing to the flower’s whiteness, signifying Christ’s purity from sin, its sweetness, signifying the sweetness of Christ’s ministry to humanity, and its fecundity, signifying the fruitfulness of Christ and His apostles’ preaching.
Because of its association with the mother of God, the flower is often a sign of humility, chastity, sweetness, and purity in religious painting and is usually carried by brides in the wedding bouquet or planted by newlyweds as a means of asking Mary to bless their marriage with similar virtues.
The lily-of-the-valley also possesses a long and storied association with the month of May, which the Catholic Church considers the “Month of Mary, “Mary Month,” or “Lady Month.” There exists a widespread tradition—called a “May crowning”—where representations of Mary are erected and crowned with the lily-of-the-valley. This practice of devotion may have arisen from the ancient Greeks and Romans, who devoted the month of May to Artemis and Flora, the goddesses of fecundity and blossoms, respectively. (Unsurprisingly, the flower’s Latin name majalis refers to “that which belongs to May.”)
The French have a tradition of giving the flower out as a gift on May Day (May 1), ultimately deriving from King Charles I’s habit of using the lily-of-the-valley as a good-luck charm. Continuing the flower’s association with May (and springtime more generally), socialists around the world have adopted the lily-of-the-valley as their own symbol, proudly displaying it on International Worker’s Day, which coincides with May Day.
Muguet sold in Paris on May Day. Muguet is the French word for the lily-of-the-valley.
Image Source: Twitter, @profdanhicks #FeteDuMuguet
But just how did a poisonous flower—and one not nearly as striking or impressive as the rose—come to represent the signal figures of the Christian religion?
One explanation may be found in the Old Testament text otherwise known as the Song of Songs, Canticle of Canticles, or Psalm of Psalms. Historically attributed to the authorship of the biblical figure of Solomon, the Song of Songs is, ostensibly, a dialogue between a bride and a bridegroom, where each lover attempts to outdo the other in expressing their love by delivering a series of erotically-charged metaphors and similes. The Catholic Church, since the time of Origen of Alexandria, has long interpreted this dialogue as an allegory of the love and mystical union between Christ, the bridegroom, and the Church, His bride.
While the lily is generically mentioned fifteen times throughout the Bible, it is mentioned eight times in the Song of Solomon alone. In fact, in one of these metaphors the bridegroom calls himself “the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys” (Song of Songs 2:1). Here we see that the Hebrew word shoshannat-ha-amaqim, (literally ‘lily of the valleys’) is juxtaposed against the mythical ‘Rose of Sharon,’ another flower often interpreted as an allusion to Christ (the rose sharing many traits with the lily-of-the-valley, particularly its commonness, beauty, and sweetness). In the King James Version of the Bible, the rose of Sharon is itself a translation of the Hebrew ḥăḇatzeleṯ Hasharon, which had been previously—and more simply—translated as “the flower of the field”, or ego flos campi, in the Vulgate Bible of Saint Jerome.
Convallaria majalis pictured on a product from Jerusalem branded “Lily of the Valleys”, the direct translation of shoshannat-ha-amaqim found in Song of Songs 2:1 in its original Hebrew. It remains a mystery which type of flower was the one named in this Old Testament text.
Image Source: bluewhiteshop
We see, then, that the lily-of-the-valley and the rose of Sharon may or may not refer to the same—or at least similar—flowers, owing to their respective connection to fields and valleys (two things often found together when mentioned in conjunction with flowers). And more importantly, we now understand why the lily-of-the-valley has been linked to the greatest personages in the Bible.
That is, the imprecision of vernacular names sometimes makes the establishment of exact correspondences between two things all but impossible. In situations where the historical and cultural contexts of a text have been lost, only vague associations, constructed from plausible guesses at etymology, remain. This is especially the case with flower names, and the lily-of-the-valley is no exception.
And as long as the true referents of Solomon’s ‘lily-of-the-valleys’ remain shrouded in mystery, so will the sweetly poisonous lily-of-the-valley retain its significance at the heart of the Christian religion.