A long time has lapsed since the white Florentine iris (botanical name Iris florentina) was fondly named the "Flower of the lily". It is possible that there was a time when people commonly called the iris a "lily". In fact, some people assert that the term "fleur-de-lis" actually denotes the "flower of Louis". Irrespective of the origin of the name of irises, today there is no doubt that the "fleur-de-lis" stand for an iris. Precisely speaking, for several centuries, numerous French monarchs used the "fleur-de-li" or iris as their valued emblem. The flower not only appeared on their flags and tapestries, but also on their armour and shields.
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The practice of using the iris in the form of a symbol or emblem may possibly traced back to prehistoric India and Egypt, where the flower actually symbolized life. According to mythology, the ancient Egyptian goddess of joy, love, music and heaven, Hathor, was considered the mother of Horus, who himself was the god of heaven and light. Usually, Horus is associated with the lotus, which symbolizes the quintessence of life. At times, it is also said that Horus was born out of the lotus.
Eventually, this kind of representation also extended to the lily as well as the iris. In fact, iris and lily were considered to be symbols of thunder - one of Horus' destructive powers. As it was believed that the weapon of thunder was employed by the Egyptians, later these flowers were considered to manifest protection of life. Therefore, the iris came to be known as an emblem of the quintessence as well as regeneration of life. In ancient times, the Egyptians were of the belief that the three petals of these flowers represented wisdom, faith and valour. As the iris was considered to be a symbol of authority, people used the flower to adorn the pharaohs' funeral temples. The ancient Egyptians were of the view that doing so will help to conserve the powers of their pharaohs in their next life.
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Some iris species have derived their names from the territories that were crossed by the army of Alexander the Great during its eastward march up to India way back in the fourth century B.C. Some such iris species include Iris kashmiriana and Iris mesopotamia. In fact, Alexander the Great, son of Philip of Macedonia, was the first ruler from the West to conquer eastern territories and, hence, he is considered to be the leading light of the ancient Greek civilization. In addition, there are a number of iris species which were collected during the same period and their names represent the ancient colonies Greeks set up on Turkish shores - such as Iris cypriana, Iris trojana and Iris junonia.
According to the Greek mythology, all the gods dearly loved their messenger goddess Iris. Iris was especially loved by Hera, whom ancient Romans called Juno. She was the goddess of the rainbow and is said to have golden wings. Goddess Iris married Zephyrus, who represented the west wind, and traveled on the arc of the rainbow bringing the ancient gods' messages as well as commands to mankind. Even to this day, the Greeks follow the custom of planting iris on the graves of their women with the belief that the goddess Iris would come and guide the souls of these deceased women to their final place of resting.
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On the other hand, the Christians also considered the fleur-de-lis or the iris to be sacred and associated it to the Virgin Mary. There is a legend that says that once there was knight who was so forgetful that he never remembered more than just two words "Ave Maria" from the Latin prayer in the honour of the Virgin Mary or the Holy Mother. The knight was very pious, but every night and day he completed his prayers only with these two words - "Ave Maria". Several years later, the knight became very old and died. He was buried in a convent's chapel yard. Soon an iris or fleur-de-lis plant came up on his grave proving that Virgin Mary had accepted his brief, but truthful supplications.
Interestingly enough, the number three is embedded in the iris flower's structure and also evident in the three standards as well as the three falls plus the six petals that form the complete bloom. For long, three has also been a strong as well as spiritual number in Christianity, particularly because it represents the Trinity. In addition, there were three Magi. These apart, several triple design elements can also be seen in ecclesiastical art, especially in churches.
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For the sixth century B.C. Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras, the number three symbolized completion. He came to this conclusion because he believed that the number three comprised the beginning, the middle as well as the end. In fact, number three is salient feature of Greek mythology. Number three often refers to the three Graces, three Fates, and the three Cerberus or the three-headed dog. According to Greek mythology, Cerberus inhabited the Infernal Regions close to the black river Cocytus where Charon was a boatman there.
Iris was mentioned for the first time in French history during Clovis I's reign. Clovis I was a powerful Frankish monarch of the Merovingian dynasty that is credited with establishing the French state in 481 A.D. In fact, Clovis was the French ruler who overwhelmed the last great army of Rome in Gaul in 486 A.D. Later during his reign, Clovis also overcame the Alamanni, the Burgundians and the Visigoths. Within a decade after this, Clovis and Franks ruled western Germany as well as the Low Countries of Europe's north-west. In addition, they ruled nearly the whole of Gaul.
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Going by legend, Clovis was the first to adopt the fleur-de-lis as his emblem way back in near the beginning of the 500s when an angel reportedly presented him an iris to homer him for converting into Christianity. Initially, Clovis was a Germanic ruler and later he converted to Christianity - the first Germanic ruler to do so. Before Clovis became a Christian, most Germanic monarchs were either Aryan heretics or pagans. After he converted to Christianity, Clovis was supported by the Catholic clergy as well as the laymen and this was valuable for him indeed.
Some centuries later, the fleur-de-lis was used as the French monarchy's emblem for the first time following an ordinance issued by Louis le Jeune in 1147. Subsequently, in 1376, the French monarch Charles V, who was popularly known all over his monarch as "Charles the Wise", approved the use of fleur-de-lis insignia for his coat of arms. Apart from being an educated man who promoted art as well as literature, Charles V undertook government reforms, as the French government was intensely divided due to the rivalry of rival factions. In addition, Charles V also established a modern army and navy, while resuming the 100 Years' War with England. As all the initiatives undertaken by Charles V were immensely successful, people all over Europe soon identified the iris as the symbol of Charles the Wise's reign all over Europe.
In this way, the iris turned into heraldic symbols - insignia of a government and widely used in flags, tapestries, armours and shields. In the early days, these types of symbols, such as the iris, fish, beasts and birds, were just useful in identifying friends and foes, especially during the medieval period when the knights generally encased themselves in armours. Hence, taking a clue from Clovis, various knights also adopted symbols that embodied any even or an attribute of a character. Later, some rulers also used these heraldic symbols in the form of seals with a view to endorse documents in an era when very few people possessed the ability to read and write.
Following the advent of gunpowder from China, armours virtually became ineffective. At this stage, the heraldry symbols were generally used in aristocratic emblems that were developed to symbolize particular families instead of individual knights. These emblems were used to create coats of arms developed in ceremonial prototypes and following specific usage rules.
In 1484, King Richard III of England established the Herald's College, also known as the College of Arms. In fact, this institution enjoyed the sole rights in deciding which individuals were qualified to use coat of arms and wear them. The Herald's College also took the final decision regarding the particulars that one could use to make their coat of arms. According to the usage code of the Herald's College, the fleur-de-lis is an emblem that denotes a sixth son on the coat of arms' shields.
With the passage of time, the fleur-de-lis developed into a common artistic symbol. This flower has appeared in the form of a striking terminal for the cross' limbs. As the fleur-de-lis was believed to symbolize life in ancient times, there is no doubt that the symbolism is most appropriate.