It is scarcely necessary to observe that devices were represented on shields ages before they were used heraldically; and this custom is sufficiently shewn to have been universal also among the ancient Greeks, by the authority of classical writers, and more particularly by the subjects of their painted vases. Certain districts of Greece had also their peculiar emblems. Even the round shields of the Mexicans bore similar devices.
The fleur de lys was first used on the mariner's heraldry; and at that period women began to bear arms in an heraldic point of view, which had previously been confined to the suit of armour worn by their husbands. They now wore robes - embroidered on the right side with the arms of their husbands, and on the left with those of their fathers.
Iris, the ancient name of the plant, preserved in modern botany, was bestowed by the Greeks, either from the varied and delicately blended hues which the greater part of the tribe present; or, according to others, from the arc-like form given by the re-flexed petals, though Pliny says it was from the variety of its colours resembling the rainbow. The flower was called, according to Philinus, "the wolf," from its supposed resemblance to the lips of that animal; and some made it the symbol of a messenger on account of its name of iris.* It was also held in the highest esteem as a medicine: curing coughs, bruises, "evil spleens," convulsions, dropsies and serpent-bites, and, as Gerarde says, "doth mightilie, and vehementlie, draw forth choler." It was even employed as a cosmetic, and still finds favour for this purpose in the eyes of our rustic maidens. But it is to be used with caution, as Gerarde thus refers to its powers; "clene washed, and stamped with a few drops of rose-water, and laid plaisterwise vpon the face of man or woman, it dothe in two daies, at the most, take awaie the black-nesse and blewnesse of any stroke or bruse; so that if the skinne of the same woman, or any other person, be very tender and delicate, it shall be needful that ye laye a piece of silk, sendalle, or a piece of fine laune between the plaistre and the skinne, for otherwise in such tender bodies it often causeth hete and inflammation," I can but attribute to these qualities the Welsh name of Llys hychgryg y glosia, or, rough-blowing herb-of-pain, though the explanation is scarcely satisfactory.
Llys Camminiad signifies herb of the falcon, or more properly of the peregrine falcon. Withering mentions a case in which the fresh root of the corn-flag (S. pseudacorus) having been given to some swine bitten by a mad dog, they entirely escaped the disease; while some others bitten at the same time, having been kept without it, died with all the symptoms of confirmed hydrophobia. The Romans called it "consecratrix" for its being used in purifications, and Pliny mentions certain ceremonies in digging up this plant, which are very similar to those described by him and by Theophrastus in other cases. "Those," he says, "who intend taking up the iris, drench the ground around it some three months before with hydromel, as though a sort of atonement offered to appease the earth; with the point of a sword, too, they trace three circles round it, and the moment they gather it, they lift it up towards the heavens." I do not know whether the Dalmatians had the same custom, but if so the Illyric name Bogisca may have some connection with it: Bog signifying "God" in the language of the successors of the ancient Illyrians. The iris of that country is said by Pliny to have been the finest in quality, and it was of two varieties; "the best kind being that which causes sneezing when handled".
* By a strange misconception of Plutarch's statement respecting the pupil of the eye, this plant has been said to signify in the hieroglyphical language of ancient Egypt, the eye of Heaven. But the eye represented the land of Egypt, according to Plutarch, from the blackness of the soil resembling that of the pupil of the eye, and the eye with a sceptre signified Osiris, his name, according to some, being interpreted "many-eyed".
The Iris germanica and sisymnchium are both natives of Egypt; and the latter grows abundantly in the alluvial plain near the desert, below the Pyramids.
The Hottentots of the Cape have a most poetical, and even touching, mode of reckoning their ages, or the death of those whom they have loved, by the number of times the blossoms of the oenkje have opened to the sun. These oenkjes are a species of iris, the roots of which they roast in the ashes, using them as an article of food, which bears a close resemblance to potatoes. The word oenkje is employed by them, not only as a name for the plant, but also for marking a period of time; the new year commencing when the plant first peeps out of the ground. The signification given to it is similar to that attached to arista by Claudian, who uses it for summer.
Britain possesses two native species of the iris, the I. pseudacorus, with yellow blossoms, and the I. foetidissima, with small flowers of a dull vivid purple: for, as Sir J. W. Hooker justly observes, - "It is much to be regretted that our Flora is now encumbered with the Iris tuberosa, L. (E. Bot. Suppl. Ed. Cat.) a native of the Levant and other countries bordering on the Mediterranean, formerly cultivated for its medicinal properties, and a wellknown inhabitant of our gardens." In fact, though this plant constantly appears to grow wild, it will be found on further examination to be merely an outcast from cultivated ground.
The common and handsome yellow water-iris, or corn-flag, which is also called the gladun, or sword-grass, from an Anglicised form of the Welsh names, gladdon or gladwyn, affords an excellent black dye, and is sometimes employed in making ink; as well as for the cure of tooth-ache, and all such other medicinal purposes as I have before referred to; while the roasted roots form an excellent and wholesome substitute lor coffee.
This name gladun agrees well with the fact of the iris having been sometimes called, in ancient times, gladiolus, from its resembling a sword, like the plant of that name. The strong smell of the iris is mentioned by Theophrastus and other ancient writers, and Pliny tells us that its root was extensively employed in perfumery as well as in medicine. The roots of the Florentine iris, which are known to us as orris-root, have a very agreeable odour, very different from our Iris foetidissima; the smell of whose leaves when crushed, is most offensive, though compared by the peasantry to that of roast beef; hence its common English name of "roast-beef plant." The juice of its root is sometimes used to excite sneezing* for the relief of headache; but it is a practice which cannot be too strongly condemned, as the most violent convulsions have been known to ensue from it. The plant is very common in the south-west districts of England, especially in Devonshire, and presents a very gay appearance in autumn, when its capsules open and display the bright masses of scarlet seeds they enclose.
So persistent are these that the plant frequently remains decorated with them until the months of March or April; reminding us, all the long months of winter through, that the happy spring tide - the neuez amser, "new time," of the Breton, or newydd amser of the Welsh - will assuredly come once more, when these adhering seeds shall quietly leave the plant they have so faithfully adorned, and shall lie quietly down in the earth to germinate once more, and with glad young blossoms deck anew the banks they have adorned so long. From these, as from other things in Nature, true and happy lessons may be learned; and truly happy indeed is the heart that treasures them carefully up: a harvest store for days of care and trial; and so, in the words of Wordsworth:-
* This, which is mentioned by Pliny, is too hastily denied by Fee.
"Do you for your own benefit construct A calendar of flowers, plucked as they blow, Where health abides, and cheerfulness, and grace".
"Bist du krank, verstimmt, erbos't; Koram' in grunen Auen Deine Welt zu kauen."*