- Hrafnsunna Ross
Vrinda: The Ivy Queen
Exploring the connections between the Norse goddess Rindr/Vrinda and ivy folklore
I am writing this with my mind swathed in a dark emerald green. Last Yule night I drew the rune Gebo, the Ivy card from my Ogham deck and the Queen of Swords. This painted an interesting picture in my head, of a green lady wandering amongst ivy-clad ruins. I dived into ivy folklore and mythology, researching who this might be. I visited Hebe, the Maenads and the various Green Ladies of Britain, but one particular solemn figure was sitting and waiting for me.
Very little is known of the Goddess Rindr and her name’s origin is obscure, but it is thought to be connected to a Gotlandic word for ivy, rind. A variation of her name, Vrindr, Wrinda or Vrinda (the name I prefer), can possibly be found in the Ostergotland place name Vrinnevi, the meaning of which would in that case be Vrindar-Vé (Vrindr’s Shrine). Oscar Lundberg proposed that she was therefore a fertility goddess represented by ivy or perhaps even made of it. The theory of her being connected to Vrinnevi has been debated, and some argue that the place name simply means “Ivy forest”. Even so, the similarity between the name Rindr and the word rind is hard to ignore and I strongly feel that she is represented by ivy as Lundberg suggests. Previously I had only known her as some kind of winter goddess and as the unwilling bearer of Óðinn’s son, Váli. This connection to the ivy plant opened up a whole new dimension of her.
I want to start by criticizing Patricia Telesco’s interpretation of Vrinda being a goddess of accepting uncomfortable changes. That just as winter yields to spring, so does Vrinda yield to the advances of Óðinn and become warm and fertile. Whether or not Vrinda’s myth is a metaphor for the changing of seasons, I find it appalling that someone would look at a story about sexual assault and draw from it the lesson that one should not fight “positive change”. Change can be good, but that attitude in this context is disgusting and disrespectful to all that have had to go through such a horrible experience. Now, moving on…
First there is the madness. The maenads were wild, ecstatic worshipers of Dionysus who wore ivy. Often willing participants of the frenzy, but sometimes forced. In Gesta Danorum the tale is told of how Óðinn, when thrice rejected by Vrinda, uses magic to drive her mad and then ill. Disguised as a medicine woman called Wecha, Óðinn tells her father that he can cure her but it would cause a violent reaction. Vrinda is tied to her bed and Óðinn proceeds to commit one of his ugliest crimes. I connect these two instances of forced madness with certain properties of the ivy; ingesting the leaves can cause delirium, convulsions and even hallucinations. Surprisingly, wearing crowns of ivy was believed to prevent drunkenness. To me, all of the above makes Vrinda a goddess of madness, but as a sufferer. We who may have bouts of bad mental health may find comfort in her.
Next I want to talk about the Green Ladies of Britain, specifically the melancholy yet usually benevolent ghosts that haunt castles. The Green Ladies are dead but are still kind, often protecting living residents of their haunts. The Green Lady of Huntingtower Castle in Perthshire (known as Lady Greensleeves) is said to have healed a young boy who lived in a house on the estate. Ivy was also seen as a protective plant in Britain.This protective element also be a domain of Vrinda, John McKinnell writes about a kenning for a warrior in the saga of Guðmundur Arason, serkja Rindar Sannr. Sannr is a name of Óðinn meaning “truth”, Rindar serkur would be “Rindur’s serk”. According to McKinnell this hints that she may have been able to enchant clothing to work as a protective charm. But back to the Green Ladies. Most of them are thought to be the ghosts of particular women of noble lineage that lived in the castles and were usually killed in horrible ways. The Green Lady of Caerphilly Castle is the ghost of Alice de la Marche of France who died of shock when she learned of her husband’s men killing her lover. I mention her specifically because of her ability to blend into the ivy that grows on the castle walls. The ivy in this story feels like a very appropriate symbol and I feel it could be extended to the rest of the Green Ladies. Ivy clings to ruins, it clings to trees long after they die. I want to quote the first stanza of Henry Kendall’s The Ivy on the Wall:
The verdant ivy clings around
Yon moss be-mantled wall,
As if it sought to hide the stones,
That crumbling soon must fall:
That relic of a bygone age
Now tottering to decay,
Has but one friend—the ivy—left.
The rest have passed away.
I believe this sentiment lives with Vrinda. In this aspect, she is a goddess of mourning and trauma, of yearning for the irretrievable past. But at the same time she is a goddess of protection and overcoming hardships and devastation. As ivy holds together and decorates the weathered stones of an old castle, so too can Vrinda help hold together our broken hearts and shattered selves.
Then there is winter. I have read many articles and blogs online written by pagans associating Vrinda with winter and almost nothing else. I never actually saw mentioned any concrete reason for it, but now that I have become aware of her ivy realm it has become obvious. Most people are familiar with the carol The Holly and the Ivy. Both plants are evergreen and are part of a family of yule plants alongside mistletoe and yew. Ivy and Holly historically represented the feminine vs masculine, in parts of England there are still dances between the Holly boy and the Ivy girl. It was supposedly custom once for men and women to light-heartedly taunt each other through song. Sadly it seems mostly the songs praising Holly have been preserved, an example is the following verse:
Nay, Ivy, nay; it shall not be i-wys ;
Let Holly hafe the maystery, as the manner is.
Holly stond in the Halle fayre to behold;
Ivy stond without the dore; she is full sore acold.
Holly and his merry men they dancyn and they sing.
Ivy and hur maidens they wepyn and they wryng.
(Ballad from the time of Henry VI)
In a more positive light, holly and ivy feature in a poem by Henry VIII called Green Groweth the Holly. Here ivy's steadfast color throughout winter symbolizes fidelity. It is a charming poem if a bit ironic, since Henry himself wasn’t exactly a paragon of fidelity. I’ll let you read the third and fourth verse:
As the holly groweth green
With ivy all alone
When flowers cannot be seen
And greenwood leaves be gone,
Now unto my lady
Promise to her I make,
From all other only
To her I me betake.
It is not strange that Henry made this connection. In the language of flowers ivy represents fidelity, wedded love and friendship. Ancient Greek brides would carry ivy as a symbol of undying love and sprigs of it are often found in wedding bouquets today. I think ivy being an evergreen as well as it’s ability to cling tightly are good reasons for it being a symbol for faithful love. We also see generosity and kindness as ivy provides berries for birds in winter. These aspects all together give me the feeling that, yes, Vrinda is a winter goddess. However, I feel she is more a goddess of persevering winter, rather than a goddess of the frost and cold itself. She stays living, green and fruitful when other plants lie dead. Her love persists through hardships. Winter or summer, it holds on.
Just before I conclude I’d like to touch upon animal associations. There is not a lot to work with, but the color and winding tendencies of ivy invoke the spirit of a serpent. Perhaps an adder, with its ivy-like pattern and ability to hibernate. The adder, like the ivy, is also toxic. The maenads wore serpents as well as ivy so it's not entirely far-fetched to see snakes as a favorite of Vrinda, but I’m not sure how well it fits. Perhaps the wren, a bird often seen darting through ivy bushes and has connections to winter. The word “wren” is of obscure origin but the words wren, rind (the Gotland word for ivy) and rindill (the Icelandic word for wren) sound curiously similar to Wrinda and Rindur.
Then there are owls. In Britain ivy has a special relationship with the tawny owl, which is sometimes even called an ivy-owl. Most people are familiar with owls being traditionally associated with death, but it may surprise some that ivy is so as well. This seems contradictory to it’s tolerance of winter, the death of the year, but this association likely stems again from fidelity as well as ivy’s tendency to grow over tombstones. Ivy was also a frequent motif on headstones and there it likely represents immortality and eternal life. Both snakes and owls are carved on headstones too. Ivy was used to foretell death This association with death ties well in with the aforementioned Green Ladies. Owls and ivy are paired together in the idiom “like an owl in an ivy-bush”, which is used to describe a person with a vacant stare (usually due to drunkenness) or in some cases those with a frightened and dishevelled appearance. I almost forgot to mention that tawny owls usually mate for life, fidelity again. Finally, the carol I mentioned earlier has a couple of verses mentioning owls:
Ivy hath berries black as any sloe;
There come the owl and eat him as she go
Good ivy, what birds hast thou?
None but the owlet that cries how, how.
That brings us to the end. It’s quite bold of me, I know, to just give Vrinda all these associations purely based on ivy folklore and mythology. However, I feel so uncomfortable just leaving her bound to that one, grisly story of her impregnation. It’s unfair. I really do feel she may have shown herself to me that Yule night, or at least an aspect of herself, and I’d rather she lived in my mind as a lush and complex entity. Maybe I am getting lost in a thick forest of wishful thinking but maybe, like the Green Lady of Caerphilly Castle, she has indeed been hiding in the ivy.
Vrinda the broken, Vrinda the crazed,
Vrinda the wanderer of ruins and graves.
Vrinda the devoted, Vrinda the evergeen.
Vrinda the beautiful, unwavering Ivy Queen
Sources and further reading:
On English ivy folklore and mythology:
Properties of English ivy:
https://www.thecollector.com/maenads-women-bacchus/ On Green Ladies: https://www.spookyisles.com/scottish-green-lady-stories/
Wedding flower customs: https://www.theknot.com/content/wedding-flowers-customs-traditions
Tawny Owl: https://www.peakdistrictonline.co.uk/birds-of-prey-the-tawny-owl/
Evidence pointing to Rindr being a worker of protective magic:
Gesta Danorum book 3, where the story of her assault is written:
Possible etymology of her name: https://books.google.is/books?id=DtcMCAAAQBAJ&pg=PA160&lpg=PA160&dq=scandinavia+ivy+goddess&source=bl&ots=GMILPvloOP&sig=ACfU3U3EX9SDhIxFUwiTT_sNHFbMbxOlng&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjv-_fXvYP1AhUwQEEAHdY1D9cQ6AF6BAgfEAM#v=onepage&q=scandinavia%20ivy%20goddess&f=false
Headstone symbolism https://headstonesymbols.co.uk/