Broadly speaking reeds are taken as symbols of what is fragile as well as what is flexible. The latter is Aesop’s reed (as opposed to his oak), the former, perhaps, Pascal’s ‘thinking reed’.
In the Far East, the symbolism of the plant takes two distinct forms. In Shinto mythology the reed which sprouted from the primeval waters stands for manifestation and equates with the lotus. Mythical Japan was a ‘reed-bed’.
On the other hand reeds are also believed to be endowed with cleansing and protective powers.
When Izanagi returned from the realms of the dead he cleansed himself with reeds, and Yi-yin was cleansed in reed-smoke before he became a minister. The genii who guard gateways use reed-ropes to control evil spirits. Some Shinto rites of purification involve crossing a circle of reeds (chi-no-wa). Entrance to the lodges of some Chinese secret societies is under an arch of reeds, beside which the wardens stand. White reed mats are used ritually.
In India the reed (vetasa) is sometimes regarded as an image of the World Axis and a comparison with the axial reed which emerged from Japanese primeval waters is unavoidable.
In the legend of King Midas, a reed grew from the hole in which the barber had buried his secret, ‘King Midas has ass’s ears’. Paul Diel regards that reed as standing for one of the symbols of reduction to the mundane which is the consequence of inordinate desire. In the context of the legend, ‘the reed represents the depraved soul which bends to every pressure and bows to every change of fashion’.
The reed plucked from the Earth becomes the ney, the sacred pipe of the Mevlevi, or Whirling Dervishes. This is the basic instrument used in their religious music and, in the words of Jalal-al-Dln RCimi, the Order’s founder, ‘sings the pains of separation’. In this context, the reed pipe symbolizes the mystic who has been torn away from God and by his wailing and his songs displays his aspiration to find him once more in eternal life.
This symbol of the soul expressing its burning longing in song and tears recurs in the folklore and superstitions of some eastern European and Asian peoples. Ukrainians, Byelorussians and even Lithuanians say that ‘the reed which grows from the grave of a drowned man will name his murderer if it is made into a pipe.’ The reed is a voice.
The years in the Aztec calendar were set under four signs, one of which was that of the reed. The green reed was associated with the east, the land of rebirth. The Ancient Mexicans regarded it as a symbol of fertility, plenty and wealth.