Since the dawn of civilization, the lily was the representative of the feminine ideal. It was the sacred flower of the ancient Neolithic and Minoan goddess Dictynna, who lived atop Mount Dicta.
Dicta is the root word of “dictate” and “edict,” and thus it is no surprise that Dictynna’s name meant “She Who Must Be Obeyed.” Painted lilies adorned the walls of excavated Minoan villas, and Dictynna was the supreme goddess in Minoan Crete.
Eventually her cult assimilated into the mythology of ancient Greece, where she became the prototype for Artemis.
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Also read: Types of lilies with pictures
The Lily in Ancient Creation Myths
When the goddess Venus rose from the foam of the sea she saw a lily and, envious of its beauty, caused a huge and monstrous pistil to spring from its white center. This creation myth accounts for the lily’s association with Venus, who personified passion and lust.
In Roman mythology, white trumpet lilies were associated with Juno, the queen of the gods and began to play allegorical roles in the representation of femininity and motherhood.
As Juno nursed her son Hercules, excess milk fell from the sky. Half the milk remained in the sky, thus creating the stars that composed the Milky Way, while the other half fell to the earth and created white lilies.
In ancient Greece and Rome, lilies were known as Juno’s rose. Woven into crowns, priests placed them on bride’s heads during marriage ceremonies as symbols of purity, fertility, and abundance.
Lilies in Judeo-Christian Symbolism
In the Judeo-Christian legend of Adam and Eve, lilies grew from Eve’s tears as she departed in disgrace from Paradise. As the archetypal symbols of death and resurrection, pagans, Christians and Jews all placed lilies on graves.
The lily’s association with the Virgin Mary is so complete that the flowers are frequently referred to as “Madonna lilies”, or “white robed apostles of hope” which are the same lilies that grace the altar of every Christian church on Easter Sunday.
Lilies were said to be yellow until the Virgin Mary stooped to pick one, when it turned pure white. These same lilies proliferate in Western art and legend in the form of the Angel Gabriel giving Mary a branch of pure white lilies, proclaiming that she is to be the mother of the Christ child.
In Christian art, saints are pictured carrying vases of white lilies to Mary and the infant Jesus. St. Joseph, Mary’s husband, is often holding a lily branch, symbolizing that his wife Mary was a virgin.
Early Christian theologians and scribes depicted the lily as the emblem of the Annunciation and the Resurrection. White lilies bloomed where religious event took place, such as the Garden of Gethsemane, the Crucifixion, and the tombs of both Jesus and
Mary. Jesus Christ immortalized them in his speech, “Consider the lilies of the field.”
Medieval Times and the Age of Enlightenment
In the Middle Ages, white lilies were erroneously used for medical treatments. Yet modern science disproves any healing properties.
In their persistent role as symbols of purity and innocence, legend foretold that lilies would spontaneously appear on the graves of those executed for crimes they did not commit, and if planted in gardens they would ward off ghost and evil spirits.
In the Age of Enlightenment the lily was the symbol of the nobility. During the French Revolution, female Royalists wore bouquets of them in their décolletage or in their hair as a sign of their allegiance.