Exploring the symbolism & many uses of the lilac tree for healing on spiritual, psychological, energetic and physical levels
Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) is a flower that has been close to my heart all my life. Something about its spirit always struck a deep chord with me. Its floral & powdery scent is reminiscent of Spring’s rebirth and my childhood in rural Serbia. Unsurprisingly, it ignites a nostalgia within me, reminding me of the people that came before me and my ancestry in the Balkan Peninsula. It made so much sense when I discovered that this is where the Lilac tree actually originated.
Lilacs are a member of the genus Syringa, a member of the Oleaceae family of plants, making them closely related to olive trees. Syringa is derived from Ancient Greek word ‘syrinx’ meaning "pipe" or "tube" and refers to the hollow branches of S. vulgaris. The hard and resilient branches of lilacs have been commonly used for wood carvings and musical instruments over the years.
Given this deep love for lilac, I searched all of my favourite herbariums to gather information on its symbolism, and physical and spiritual healing properties. To my surprise, information on S. vulgaris was either missing altogether or very sparse - indicating merely that it is symbolic of first love, resilience and rebirth, with astringent (constrictive) and antibacterial properties.
Why was knowledge on this ancient plant that has captured our senses for thousands of years not better documented? It made no sense to me.
So, I consciously invited the lilac’s energy into my life over the last few weeks. Tending to my baby tree (pictures on the right), watching her blooms unfurl in the morning light. Walking my favourite wild lilac trails, stopping to gather wild lilacs on the side of the road and filling my house with their scent and their beauty. I even employed the ancient technique of enfleurage to try to capture their scent by repeatedly infusing fresh lilac blooms into refined (unscented) coconut oil. This technique is normally done with animal fat, onto which the lilac blooms are individually placed for a period of 24-48hr, and then replenished 5-7 times. This is one of the only ways their scent can be captured, as the application of any heat immediately destroys the scent. I still have a few infusions left to do with the last of the lilacs, but happy to report that the oil has started to take on a light lilac scent!
This scent has been noted to have a calming effect on the mind and can help to reduce stress and anxiety. It is also believed to help improve sleep quality and promote relaxation. On the physical level, lilac has been shown to have potent antimicrobial, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and astringent properties. On the energetic or spiritual level, it’s been noted that its flowers are associated with renewal, rebirth and first love.
Astrologically, Lilac flowers have been associated with Venus and the sign of Taurus, the earthly home of Venus. This connection is due to the lilac's beauty and sweet fragrance, which reflects the sensual and luxurious nature of Venus in its Taurean nature. Taurus is also associated with stability, loyalty, and practicality, all qualities that are reflected in the hardy and long-lived lilac plant, which can thrive for 100s of years. Taurus energy is also solitary and connected to the earth and her cycles, much like Syrinx, the Greek mythology nymph lilac derives her name from.
Syrinx was a beautiful woodland nymph who had many times attracted the attention of satyrs (half-human, half-animal beings, very connected to their sexuality and animal nature), and fled their advances in turn. She worshipped Artemis, the goddess of wilderness, and had like her vowed to remain a virgin for all time (ie. belong to no man and be whole within herself).
Pursued by the amorous god Pan, she ran to a river's edge and asked for assistance from the river nymphs. In response, she was transformed into Syringa* - which Pan cut to fashion the first set of panpipes, which were henceforth known as syrinx.
Pan was the god of shepherds, fertility, the wild, and spring. He had the upper body of a man, but the hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat - much like Christianity’s representations of the devil (likely due to Christianity's demonization of sexual energy). He was a lustful god, known for his sexual prowess, and therefore symbolized the physical pleasures of life, which could be associated with Venus (pleasure) and Mars (desire) - or the balance between feminine and masculine. Pan’s energy is also associated with that of Capricorn (the seagoat) and Saturn. This association arose from when Pan attempted to escape the monster Typhon, by diving into the Nile river and attempting to change himself into a fish. In the midst of PANic, only part of him transformed so he had the head and body of a man-goat and the rear section of a fish.
Lilac's association with Saturn also makes sense, as Saturn herbs are generally astringent (meaning they constrict and dry tissues), given the nature of Saturn's energy, which constricts and contains matter. Astringents are therefore great for controlling oil production in skin, as well as reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Just like astringents control the expansion of tissues, Saturn's energy is necessary to control or contain the creative energy of Venus and birth this creative potential into the physical.
The story of Pan and Syrinx demonstrates the pain of lust & desire. It can also seen as a representation of the power struggle between one aspect of the feminine (Venus) and masculine (Saturn & Mars) energies in Greek mythology, with the male god trying to impose his control over the young, beautiful female.
When Syrinx transforms near the water, a symbol of life and feminine energy, she transforms into a new form of life to protect her creative [sexual] energy from Pan. As he fashions his panpipe from her branches, he still manages to use her as an object in some way - but she also becomes a symbol for him. Without her, his ability to create music does not exist in the same way, and his legacy is drastically deficient. In a way, her new version of self overpowers him, and channels her creative energy through him to create art through music.
If we adopt the Jungian principle that all of these archetypes live within us (as they also do in our birth charts), I would say that the Lilac tree serves as a reminder that creating or birthing new life requires both masculine and feminine energies. The feminine needs a container to express the creative potential through (ie. Pan and his panpipes).
However, if we are merely led by our lust, the object of our desire will forever escape us in the form we desire it. In this case, even though we might create something beautiful, it may be at the expense of the FULL potential that was initially there.
Let me know what you think of my interpretation in the comments below & enjoy the last moments of lilac season (in Ontario).
*NOTE: there seems to be confusion whether Syrinx transformed into Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) or a Common Reed (Phragmites australis). When we look at the latin names of both of these plants, I believe Lilac is the accurate answer, given the additional association of its wood being used for pipes/musical instruments.