On the island of Ynys Môn (Anglesey, Wales) there is a modern structure; a concrete path. At the edge of the concrete path, there is a haven: a tiny ‘enclosed garden’, a precious piece of bare earth where the eirlys ‒ the snowdrop flourishes and grows.
In that apparently inhospitable place this tiny shining herald of the coming spring, the snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis (LINN.) grows. At the edge of its world, sheltered from the wind, it has forced its way through the stony ground to produce its pure white flowers tipped with delicate green, so that passers-by can begin to dream of spring, and gardens re-awakening after the winter’s sleep.
Snowdrops, common in gardens in the British Isles, were believed to have been imported in Roman times, and are often commonly found growing within the enclosed walls of former medieval abbeys, priories and churchyards. They are among the many migrants of the plant world to the British Isles, with their distribution pattern ranging from mid to southern-Europe, western Asia (modern day Turkey) and the Caucasus. The snowdrop flowers around the time of the medieval church’s festival of Candlemas, a festival of purification, the blessing of candles and light. Through time it has been given various local names that recall its earlier symbolic message of purity and virginity: Purification flower, Fair Maids of February or simply Fair Maids, Mary’s Tapers or Candlemas Bells.
Recent modern research has confirmed that the Snowdrop really does have dreamlike qualities. The active substance, galantamine, been used as an oneirogen, a dream enhancing supplement. Historically, the first evidence of the use of its memory-increasing properties is believed to come from Homer’s Iliad where, some scholars argue, Odyessus uses the snowdrop flower to combat the effects of his memory loss.(1)
The use of imagery was one of the key components of religious devotion that ran throughout all levels of medieval society used to explain to the laity the foundation of their belief. The Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea) is one of the most popular collections of stories and legends, full of imagery and metaphor, which was written by Jacques de Voragine (Iacopo de Varezze) in the thirteenth century. This collection of Saints Lives and Legends includes, among many others, a miracle story within a story, which reveals a dream-like state that occurred to someone just at the time the snowdrops were in flower.
Unable to hear mass on the ‘Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary’ as the household chaplain was away, the lady in Jacques de Voragine’s legend, prostrated herself before an altar in her private chapel which was, like many others, dedicated to the Virgin. She soon fell asleep in which state she had a vision: a vision in which ‘a right noble virgin crowned right preciously’ entered the chapel, followed by a great company of virgins and a (lesser) company of young men. After they had all sat down they were given wax candles:
At the last came this man to this lady aforesaid and gave to her also a candle of wax…and all the company of the virgins sang the mass’.(2)
However, all did not go well when, at the time for the Offertory of the candles to be given to the priest the lady refused to part with her treasure and, during the struggle which ensued, and being forced to hand her candle over, the candle broke in two. Immediately, the woman came back to her senses from her dream-like state, and thanked the Virgin Mary for allowing her to take part in the Feast of Candlemas despite the lack of a chaplain. Jacques de Voragine then explains to his readers, in his story within a story, that this lady retained her broken candle, as a precious relic, which brought about many cures and much healing in later years.(3)
This link between the snowdrop and purity continued through to the twentieth century. One writer in the Spectator in February 1947 discussed whether Galanthus nivalis may have been native to the Herefordshire Beacon, and Wrexham in Wales, where it grew particularly well. He suggests that this notion appears to be supported by an old custom, in his words, ‘surely mediaeval’, which he says was ‘peculiar to that part of the island’. This old custom linked the earlier church’s idea of purification with the appearance of the snowdrop by bringing into the house on Candlemas Day a bowl of the flowers to give the house itself ‘the white purification’.
Piercing its way through snowy and icy conditions, in enclosed gardens, priories and churchyards, or even at the side of a man-made concrete path near to the coastline of Ynys Môn, the pure white, the appearance of the ‘tri-leaved diadem’, the tiny eirlys can inspire those who see it: ‘To put much argument by. And solve a lifetime’s mysteries. (Walter de la Mare, The Snowdrop).
(1) Royal College of Physicians: ‘The Garden of Medicinal Plants’. https://garden.rcplondon.ac.uk/plant/Details/1534 citing A. Plaitakis / R. C. Duvoisin, Homer’s ‘moly’ identified as Galanthus nivalis L. Physiologic antidote to stramonium poisoning, Clinical neuropharmacology (New York Raven Pr.) VI 1983 1-5. Also used in treatments for dementia.
(3) The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Christianity, ed. John H. Arnold, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014, 351.