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Incense see Frankincense and myrrh

Insect The symbolic meaning of the generic term ‘‘insect’’ is usually ephemerality or

brevity of life. Gray notes how the ‘‘insect youth’’ have peopled the air and

draws a moral: ‘‘Such is the race of man: / And they that creep, and they that

fly, / Shall end where they began. / Alike the busy and the gay / But flutter

through lifes little day’’ (‘‘Ode on the Spring’’ 25--36). See also Thomson,

Summer 342--51. Shelley thinks his song ends ‘‘as a brief insect dies with dying

day’’ (‘‘Ode to Liberty’’ 280); when the sun sets, ‘‘each ephemeral insect then /

Is gathered unto death’’ (Adonais 254--55). ‘‘What are men?’’ Tennyson asks;

‘‘Insects of an hour, that hourly work their brother insect wrong’’ (‘‘Locksley

Hall Sixty Years After’’ 202). Addressing Mt. Monadnoc Emerson says, ‘‘Hither

we bring / Our insect miseries to thy rocks; / And the whole flight, with folded

wing, / Vanish, and end their mumuring’’ (‘‘Monadnoc’’).

‘‘Fly,’’ used as the generic term for any flying insect, often has the same

sense. (See Fly.)

It is not clear what insect Kafkas Gregor Samsa is transformed into (‘‘The

Metamorphosis’’) -- perhaps a cockroach or a dung beetle -- but it is a

metamorphosis not from a larva to a flying insect such as a butterfly but

rather the reverse, from human to bug. The story has been thus interpreted,

or overinterpreted, to be a kind of parody of a spiritual transformation or

resurrection. (See Butterfly, Caterpillar.)

Insect entries in this dictionary: Ant, Bee, Butterfly, Caterpillar, Cicada,

Fly, Locust, Scorpion, Spider, Wasp.

Iron The last and worst of the races or ages, the one that now prevails, according

to Hesiod, Ovid, and other ancient authors, is symbolized by iron (see Metal).

Iron was chosen not only because it stood lowest on the hierarchy, after gold,

silver, and bronze, but probably also because the ancients remembered the

shift from bronze to iron as the most useful metal during the third and

second millennia bc. By the time of Hesiod, too, most weapons and armor

were made of iron, and it was associated with Ares the god of warfare (Roman

Mars); since the present is (always) a time of warfare and other violence, the

present is an iron age. About to have his eyes burnt out with hot irons,

Shakespeares Arthur cries, ‘‘Ah, none but in this iron age would do it!’’ (King

John 4.1.60). Ovid, however, notes that gold was a greater bane than iron, and

that men used both to slaughter each other (Met. 1.141--42).

Homer gives to iron (Greek sideros) such epithets as ‘‘gray,’’ ‘‘violet-colored,’’

‘‘dark,’’ and ‘‘gleaming’’; it is also ‘‘wrought with toil’’ because of its hardness

(Iliad 6.48). As a sign of hardness, ‘‘iron’’ sometimes modifies ‘‘spirit’’ or

‘‘heart’’: Hector tells Achilles, ‘‘Your spirit is of iron’’ (Iliad 22.357); ‘‘your heart

is of iron,’’ Hecuba and Achilles each tell Priam (24.205, 512). Such phrases

passed through Latin poetry into all the vernaculars -- Shakespeare has ‘‘Bear

witness, all that have not hearts of iron’’ (H8 3.2.424) -- into modern speech.

In Latin, iron (ferrum) by itself could mean ‘‘sword’’ or ‘‘spear’’ (as at Virgil,

Aeneid 8.648). Similarly in Shakespeare: ‘‘Come, my young soldier, put up your iron’’ (12N 4.1.39). As an epithet of ‘‘war’’ it is both synecdoche (the weapons of

war) and synonym for ‘‘remorseless’’ or ‘‘cruel’’: Shakespeare, again, has ‘‘iron

wars’’ at 1H4 2.3.48. See also ‘‘wrathful iron arms’’ (R2 1.3.136).

As a sign of inexorability or inflexibility ‘‘iron’’ could of course modify

many other nouns. Ovid writes that even the gods could not break the ‘‘iron

decrees’’ of the Fates (Met. 15.781). In Virgil death is an ‘‘iron sleep’’ (ferreus

somnus) because one cannot break its bands (Aeneid 10.745) (the phrase

translates Homers chalkeos hypnos, ‘‘bronze sleep,’’ at Iliad 11.241). Marvell

writes of ‘‘the iron gates of life’’ (‘‘To his Coy Mistress’’ 44).

See Metal.

Ivory The material of elephant tusks (‘‘ivory’’ in Greek is elephas), ivory is precious

and a sign of wealth. King Solomon made a great ivory throne overlaid

with gold (1 Kings 10.18), and Nestors court in the Odyssey is filled with

objects of gold, silver, amber, and ivory (4.73). But the chief literary use since

antiquity is as a metonym for whiteness or purity. A simile in the Iliad likens

the look of Menelaus blood on his skin to a purple dye on an ivory

cheek-piece for horses (4.141--42), while Penelope is transformed by Athena to

appear ‘‘whiter than sawn ivory’’ (18.196). The Song of Solomon compares the

neck of the beloved to ‘‘a tower of ivory’’ (7.4), almost certainly for its

whiteness. To give just a pair of modern examples, Spenser describes a maid

who, ‘‘seeing her selfe descryde, / Was all abasht, and her pure yvory / Into a

cleare Carnation suddeine dyde’’ (FQ 3.3.20); and Shakespeares Venus makes

her linked white arms into ‘‘an ivory pale [fence]’’ around Adonis (Venus and

Adonis 230).

For ‘‘ivory tower’’ see Tower. For the ‘‘gate of ivory’’ see Dream.

Ivy Ivy (Greek kissos) is the distinctive plant of Dionysus (Bacchus), the god of

lifes regenerative energy and of such vital fluids as wine, milk, honey, blood,

and semen. In one of the Homeric Hymns to Dionysus the god is

‘‘ivy-crowned’’; in another ivy magically twines about the mast of the ship

carrying the captive god. ‘‘Ivy-crowned’’ becomes a standard epithet of

Bacchus or Dionysus, as in Miltons ‘‘LAllegro’’ 16. Ivy (Latin hedera) is ‘‘most

pleasing to Bacchus,’’ Ovid writes (Fasti 3.767), because ivy hid him from the

jealous Hera. The natural basis for the symbolism may be that, as an

evergreen plant, it represents the victory of life over death (winter). Dionysus

followers, the maenads or bacchantes, wore ivy crowns and so did the thyrsoi

(wands) they carried. In at least one local cult Dionysus was simply called Ivy


The ivy was an emblem of tenacious emotional clinging, as in Hecubas

defiant vow to hold onto her daughter: ‘‘Ivy to oak, thats how Ill cling to her’’

(Euripides, Hecuba 398; see also Medea 1213). (Ivy clings to oak, in literature, as

vine clings to elm.) Often, however, ivy took on a sexual connotation quite

apart from its Dionysian associations. In his wedding song Catullus enjoins

Hymen to ‘‘bind her mind with love / as clinging ivy [tenax hedera] entwines

the tree, / wandering here and there’’ (61.33--35), while Horace reminds the

faithless Neaera of her pledge of loyalty, clinging to him more closely than an

ilex is girdled by ivy (Epodes 15.5--6), and describes another woman, Damalis, as

like ‘‘wanton ivy’’ (lascivis hederis) (Odes 1.36.20). In the Renaissance the

‘‘lascivious’’ sense predominates. Bacon says ivy is Bacchus sacred tree because

passion coils itself around human actions like ivy (Wisdom of the Ancients

chap. 24). Spenser calls it ‘‘wanton’’ and gives it ‘‘lascivious armes’’ (FQ 2.5.29,

2.12.61). In Romantic poetry, however, ivy without disapproval decorates such

love bowers as Shelleys cave of Prometheus and Keatss cave of


Among Roman writers, ivy seemed the appropriate plant for the lighter

genres of literature -- such as pastoral and love lyrics -- as opposed to the oak

and laurel (bay). (Apollo, god of poetry, wore the laurel crown.) In his Eclogues

Virgil calls on the Arcadian shepherds to ‘‘crown with ivy your rising bard’’

(7.25--26), and of the military conqueror Pollio he asks, ‘‘Accept the songs

begun at your bidding, and let this ivy creep among the laurels around your

brow’’ (8.11--13). (Pope repeats this gesture in ‘‘Summer’’ 9--10.)

Horace claims that ‘‘the ivy, the reward of poets brows, links me with the

gods above’’ (1.1.29--30); in using the word doctorum for ‘‘poets’’ Horace began a

tradition that ivy was appropriate for the ‘‘learned’’ victors, leaving the other

plants for those who win military or athletic contests. Pope extends this idea

in his Essay on Criticism, where he contrasts ‘‘The Poets Bays and the Criticks

Ivy’’ (706), while in The Dunciad he denounces all those who ‘‘Mixd the Owls

ivy with the Poets bays’’ (3.54).

Pope may have drawn his pejorative meaning of ivy, which puzzled some of

his early readers, from another of its features, noted by the ancients, that it

may destroy the tree which holds it up; it can thus represent ingratitude.

Shakespeares Prospero invokes this sense in describing his usurping brother:

‘‘he was / The ivy which had hid my princely trunk, / And suckd my verdure

out ont’’ (Tempest 1.2.85--87). Adriana in Comedy of Errors plays the vine to her

husbands elm, and dismisses whatever might dispossess her as ‘‘usurping ivy’’

(2.2.177). Popes point, then, is that critics are parasites on poets, and

ungratefully hide them under commentaries until they suffocate.

See Laurel, Oak, Myrtle, Elm.