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Archive for the ‘Herbal Myths, Lore & Legends’ Category

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I’ve always loved having a beautiful home, dating from my first proper bedroom as a child – which was all in shades of blue and full of unicorns – right up to my current cottage, shared with a partner who is a red headed, Viking blacksmith. I sometimes see herbal clients here, at my home, in my kitchen, sat up to the kitchen table with a cup of tea, and one of the things that really puts a smile on my face is the expressions of delight as folk cross our threshold for the first time. Our home has been described as an alchemist and apothecary’s home, a witch’s cottage and a faery house at one time or another, and this is before I even get started painting trees everywhere! Mulling this over, earlier this evening, it struck me that I do this sort of decorating not only because it delights me but because if I have friends and clients stepping through my front door who greet my home with that indrawn breath, that sense of wonder, then half the job is already done. The indrawn breath, the shoulders that relax, speak of someone who is already opening to the herbs, ready to receive whatever the plant allies can give.

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Come in and sit down at my table with a cup of herbal tea and tell me your woes – the battle is already half won. Tell me what troubles you, with the herbs hanging over head, drying for new batches of medicine. Your gaze is darting all round the room, taking in all the nooks and crannies, the books and bottles and jars and potions that fill all the corners – and that’s ok. Because you have relaxed, you are able to open fully and talk to me about what troubles you. The brown bottle full of herbs you will take away at the end of the consultation is only part of the medicine – coming here, sitting down in a safe space and returning to your childhood, that is part of the medicine as well. Even if your childhood was dreadful, going anywhere that makes you realise what childhood should be, that brings your inner child out from hiding, is always going to be a good thing.

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Here also is solace for me. For all of my life, ever since I was a small child, I have loved tales of witches in their homes – herbs hanging from the rafters, pots and pans and jars and bottles littering every surface. Hoary tomes in jewel coloured bindings crammed onto overstuffed bookshelves. Candles and arcane words and spider webs in the corners. Here, now, I have created safe space for me and mine, a sanctuary at the end of the long day, a haven of calm and potent mystery that sustains me and allows me to care so much, so very deeply for every person who comes to me for help and support. Without this space, these oddities, these odds and ends and peculiarities littering every surface, I would not be able to give as I do. Above my head hangs twine hanging rails full of herbs – at the moment Herb Robert and Cranesbill, but later on in the season there will be Meadowsweet, Mint, Hyssop, Rosemary and many others. Baskets of flowers will gradually accumulate on the surfaces over the coming months – Daisies and Calendulas, Elder and St John’s Wort. Bottles of colourful oils will fill the cupboards, and pots and jars of salves and balms will stack the shelves. All tools of my medicine, my healing, both for me and for others. All made possible by this mythic home of mine.

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Some folk may say I am living in a fairy tale. Perhaps I am. But it is a fairy tale of my own making, that I dwell in fully and joyfully, hands in the mud, heart soaring above the tree tops. You are always welcome to join me here!

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As was pointed out to me earlier, my protagonist in the original posting of this story was quite frankly too stupid to live (and honestly, I’m amazed I didn’t twig to that one  myself, with hindsight – I may not live in Russia, but I do live in a cottage in the countryside, and I wouldn’t be so stupid as to let the cupboard run bare right before winter, despite having a car and access to shops!)  so after a considerable amount of rewriting and pondering, here is a better version of the story!   After all, I rather suspect that magical snakes of wisdom would not pass on their lore to someone who was too stupid to lay in a decent store of food and wood right before winter – natural selection would rapidly remove the idiot from the world, I suspect…

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The Forbidden Language – The Tale of the Snake Sister

 

Once, long ago, in the far distant reaches of Russia, there was a girl who dwelt in a little wooden cottage painted bright colours, a splash of summer against the wild wood. One sunny morning in early autumn, she gathered up her basket and earth green mantle and left the cottage on one of her usual expeditions in search of autumn berries, nuts, and kindling to store for the coming winter. She ventured along the more familiar footpaths in the nearby woodlands, well known and well trodden, safe in the bright daylight and less perilous by night than some, and soon realised that she had already gathered all the fruit to be found there, and what few nuts were left had fallen prey to hungry squirrels. Undeterred, she turned about and headed for deeper reaches of the forest, and soon found a little known track that opened off to one side, framed by oak and ash and thorn, clad in the brightly painted leaves of the season and shrouded by wisps of murky mist. Curiosity can make a person do things that, with hindsight, they may think the better off, and despite her misgivings, she ventured off down the winding narrow path, ducking under low hanging branches and tree leaves bedecked with water droplets that the wind blew onto her in passing until her dark hair clung damply to her pale cheeks. Brown eyes straining in the darkness, she moved ever onward, seeking always for the familiar shapes of acorn and hazelnut, until, without warning, the ground opened before her feet and she fell into darkness.

She woke to the feeling of loam beneath her back, the heavy fragrance of it filling her nostrils. Fingers flexing, she felt fallen leaves give slightly as she slowly sat up and looked around. Darkness was all she could see, and she began to feel fear, fear that was worsened by the soft sound of something she could not identify, like high trees on a breezy summer day, and yet not like. Eyes straining in the darkness, she gazed about her, until something began to glow, softly silver in the darkness, and she began to make out sinuous shapes in the black. Snakes. Many, many snakes, moving together, in and out of a sinuous, coiled pattern that never ended. Panic reigned for a few moments, and, scrambling up, she scrabbled at the sides of the pit, seeking desperately for a way out and finding none, only the loam under her fingers and the sound of snakes echoing in her ears. The hissing began to form into a sort of song, and she found herself listening, panic forgotten for a while. Singing sibilently, the snakes soothed, and as they sang, she sank to her knees again and listened:

 

‘Mortal child, so fair and wild,

Here you stand, far beneath the land,

Above, the stars, so bright and far,

yet have no fear, for we are near,

we sing our song, all winter long.’

 

The girl found herself swaying slowly back and forth to the sound of this odd lullaby, repeated as it was by so many snakes. The silvery light given out by a round stone set in the walls high above her bathed her face, sinking into her skin and feeding her, mind, body and soul, and the snakes continued to sing, the queen of them, a marvellous creature as silver as the moon, giving her earth wisdom and root wisdom, slow, deep breathing heartbeat of the winter world as time turned beneath her and she paused, stopped in that one long moment. The snake queen taught her, during that seemingly eternal night, how to speak with plants, for long had they sought a suitable snake sister to pass the lore onto, that it might better enrich the human world. Yet one condition they set upon this learning – that she never name Mugwort, that wort so blessed by the moon, out loud, for should she do so, she would forget all she had been taught and be no more than she had been before she chose the darkened path into the forests. This they did that she would always think before speaking, and better appreciate the world about her. Days passed to weeks, and weeks to months, autumn becoming winter’s long season until at long last, the cold waned and far above the deep pit, the wind warmed as it slid about the trees in its endless trek. The snakes finally knew that it was time, and, working swiftly, they created a braided ladder from their own bodies. The girl, rising from the loam in which she had been entombed all winter, made her way slowly up this living ladder and, standing in the warmth of the sun, knew herself renewed. Gathering her earth green mantle about her, she cast about for her willow basket and realised that a new thicket of willow saplings stood where it had been so hastily discarded. Laying a hand on the silken bark, she listened a moment to the slow, wood deep, bark rich conversation of the trees as they spoke in watery tones, lessons of yielding and strength bound together in partnership. Smiling, she turned and moved down the path towards her home, never looking back, moving as if in a trance and greeting all the plants as she went.

Sadly for the world, there came a day when the girl was walking with her lover in the forest. Summer had come, and they walked hand in hand, sun caressing skin with warm golden rays. He was laughingly asking her the names of plants, and she, basking in the glory that came with knowing herself loved, was answering, bestowing brilliant smiles about her as she did so. They came at length to a tall, silvery plant that grew by the path, leaves reaching towards the sky.

“What is that one, so tall and fair?” He asked, curious, and knowing he would forget the answer moments after he heard it.

“That be Mugwort.” She replied, and the world about her went silent as the language of the plants fled her forever. The snakes sighed in their silent slumber, and settled down to wait for another snake sister, one who could learn the language of plants and would keep it, because of, and in spite of, love. And there they still wait to this day. Perhaps they have already passed the lore on – or perhaps they wait for another snake sister, snake brother – perhaps they wait for you, dear reader?

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I’ve been hard at work recently, working on the Enchanted Herbal, among many other things, and perhaps the hardest challenge I have faced thus far is how to channel the voice inside me and ignore the inner censor that tells me that what I write is not good enough / too flowery / not short and sharp enough / etc etc etc.   It is proving a constant struggle to ignore the censor and channel the little inner part of me that is a story teller, that wants to write stories and write them from the heart, from the soul, and to hell with what anyone else thinks.   It seems to be a constant test of trust for myself and my inner voice, to write what I need to write and be damned to the consequences.  I suppose part of it is a fear of rejection.  To write from that small, intimate place inside is to invite others to criticize a part of myself, and to lay my soul on the line in that way is hard work and leaves you rather wide open to getting hurt.
But I don’t care.  The small part of me that needs to write, needs to tell these stories and share them, is also steadfastly refusing to be silenced, so I shall continue to forge onwards with the book, the stories, the tellings themselves, and if it falls flat, at least I know I have tried, and tried hard, given my all, and not allowed fear to silence me as it so often has in the past.

 

And so…
Once upon a long distant time…

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Ever since I graduated from university I’ve been mulling over ideas for a book I wanted to write, and I have now (finally) begun work on the first few stories!   This project will be called the Enchanted Herbal (at the moment, anyway – it may change before I get finished) and will basically feature retellings of old folktales that incorporate herbs at a fundamental level.  It will hopefully be illustrated by a good friend of mine – more on that later once this has been confirmed!

Briar Rose – By Brian Froud. I have a print of this above my desk!

So far, we have snake sisters and forest paths, blue eyed witches and girls with an uncanny connection to flowers, sorceresses made entirely from plants and heroic tales involving the humble dandelion.  But this is where you come in, dear reader – for those of you who are herb inclined or plant inclined, if you  hear of any folk tales about herbs, please send them my way!  I have a fair few tales already but there is always room for more, from the four corners of the world, though I’ve always found that saying amusing given that the world is not square (or wasn’t the last time I checked, anyway!)

I also need proof readers – about five of them to start off with, so if any of you fancy proof reading and returning short stories to me with friendly critique then please get in touch!  (And please keep it friendly, folks – I’ve had to work very hard on my self confidence to get to this point, and I’d like to keep it intact as much as possible!!)

More on this project as I get bits of it done – for now, though, I am off to write about Chicory! :D

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Recently while bottling moon blessed water and contemplating the uses of Borage in response to a comment by a reader, I found myself sidetracked yet again by musing about exactly what truth is. I suppose the issue got kicked off by thinking about Borage and its uses as a courage herb, which then turned into contemplations about what sort of courage Borage brings, which makes it different from, for example, Yarrow, which is also a courage herb. This is where the ponderings about truth start to creep in, because what is true for me is not necessarily going to be true for someone else. Truth has many shadings – it is silvery grey, not black or white, never penned in by rigid lines, and impossible to define with words or the pen. It was never meant to be the sort of thing you thunder at your children ‘Tell the TRUTH!’, because, after all, what exactly is the truth? Everyone has their own version of events, each of which may be completely true to them, and yet we still have the odd idea that the world is a set, rigid, finite thing, and that ‘truth’, like ‘justice’, are forced, carefully defined entities within the world. Nothing could be further from this peculiar thing we call truth than that! Truth is fluid. It moves and flows with the telling, with the teller, with the listener. It changes colours depending on perspective. It paints a thousand pictures. For me, I suppose, truth and beauty tend to be closely linked, siblings even. I don’t think truth is something that can be used to describe a past action – it is a fluid, ‘doing’ sort of word.

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The Apple and the Snake

Another famous Greek legend that features apples is a part of the labours of Hercules. The eleventh task given to this famous hero was to steal the golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, a tricky task given that these maidens were the daughters of Atlas. The tree on which these fabled apples grew was given to Hera by Mother Earth as a wedding gift on her marriage to Zeus. The nine Hesperides protected the tree and sang to it daily, songs comparing the sunrise and sunset to an apple hanging in the sky. The Hesperus or Venus star, sacred to Aphrodite, rose above the tree every night. Unfortunately the Hesperides were a little too fond of the apples and got into bad habits, stealing the fruit from the tree, so Hera set the serpent Ladon to coil about the tree’s roots to protect the tree from further theft. Hercules approached Atlas, who was carrying the world on his shoulders at the time, and persuaded him to get the apples from the garden as the Hesperides would not hurt their own father. Atlas agreed, on the condition that Hercules hold the world while Atlas carried out the task, however when Atlas returned with the fruit, he refused to take the world back from Hercules. Fortunately for wily Hercules, he managed to talk Atlas into holding the planet for a few minutes while he stretched his arms out in preparation for the long haul ahead, and when Atlas took the planet back, Hercules quickly snatched up the golden apples of youth and ran off.

Brian Froud's gorgeous painting based around the apple - very appropriate!

Spirals and Charms

These days, there are a fairly large array of spells, charms, bits of folklore and customs associated with the apples. Many of the various charms used by young girls at Samhain to divine their future partners used apples, from the charm where you try and peel the skin off the apple in one continuous strip to ensure love in the following year, to apple bobbing, and the custom to twist the stem off the top of the apple whilst reciting the alphabet, one letter with each twist, and then stab the end of the stem into the apple’s peel, again while reciting the alphabet. When the stem breaks and comes away from the apple, the letter on which it does so is the first letter of your future partner’s name, and the letter on which the stem pierces the skin is the first letter of your future partner’s surname. There is also a well known custom of wassailing the apple trees and feeding the oldest tree in the orchard with cider as a charm to ensure a good yield the following year – this tradition has its roots in Anglo Saxon custom, with Waes-hael being Saxon for ‘good health’. A piece of folklore from Yorkshire dictates that the last apple on each apple tree must be left on the bough for the faery folk. Another piece of old lore mentions that if flowers appear on the tree after the fruit has matured, it is an omen of death – though whose death of course is the interesting question given that nature running its usual course usually results in a fair amount of death in the neighbourhood. It’s a fairly commonly held belief that orchards mark a threshold between this world and the Otherworld, where the boundaries are thinner and more easily crossed. Unicorns are said to live beneath apple trees as well. Several different cultures have had apple Goddesses – the Romans had Pomona, the Welsh apple Goddess was known as Olwen or Arwen, and the English apple Goddess was known as Gwen.

These days, the apple is most commonly used in charms for love and divination. The fragrant wood makes lovely wands, and is also particularly good for hearth fires, producing a delightful and distinctively fragrant smoke when it burns. The apple itself can be used medicinally as well as to provide a good level of trace minerals and vitamins, and cider vinegar has quite the reputation as a cure all and general preventative. The apple, long beloved all over the world, does not show any signs of losing popularity, and quite rightly so, given the myth and mystique surrounding this commonly available, nutritious and beautiful fruit.

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Of Immortality and the Eternal Trickster

Autumn apples that grow just down the road from me.

Across the seas in the frozen lands that were home to the original Vikings, Norse legend spoke of the Aesir and the Vanir. One of the Goddesses of the Vanir, named Idunn, Iduna or Ithunn depending on the version of the legend you read, was responsible for the sacred apples of immortality. Whether Ithunn was herself the creator of these apples is uncertain, however she was the Goddess who made sure that the Gods regularly ate the apples that allowed them to maintain their health and the all important youth and beauty so necessary for prestige. Typically enough for a trickster God, Loki decided one day that it would be a good idea to steal the sacred apples. Unfortunately for him, this was one step too far, and after some time, and after noticing the effects of the apples’ loss and the Gods’ subsequent ageing, the other Gods forced Loki to return the fruit. Interestingly enough, Iduna was married to Bragi, the Norse God of poetry – and given the apple’s link to the Otherworld and even with madness, Iduna’s choice of a mate is perhaps not so surprising given that it is an often found theory that madness and creativity are only one step removed from each other.

A Message and an Impossible Choice

On the other side of the world, in Greek myth there are two particular tales that feature the apple rather prominently. The first, of course, is the tale of the famous beauty Helen of Troy. The beginnings of the war that culminated in the destruction of the ancient city of Troy was caused, essentially, by the rather capricious decision of Aphrodite, Athene and Hera to give Paris, young prince of Troy, an apple and give him the impossible job of deciding which of the three Goddesses was the most beautiful. They offered him many different rewards, but Aphrodite, Goddess of love, offered him the fabled Helen, said to be one of the most beautiful women in the world, and of course he accepted. Unfortunately for the citizens of Troy, Helen was already married to a very jealous man named Menelaus. There are two different versions of the story – one states that Helen fell in love with Paris as a result of Aphrodite’s manipulations, and the other is of the opinion that Helen did not want to marry Paris, and that the herb Elecampane grew where her tears fell as she was being abducted. Whatever Helen may have thought of it, the long and short of the story is that she ended up in Troy. The rest, as they say, is history – or perhaps legend, in this case, although there is certainly a school of thought that says that legend is simply history that is so old that nobody remembers when it was true any more, only that it was true once upon a time.

Another local apple tree

Other examples of using the apple to convey a message certainly include the story of the beautiful Snow White who was poisoned by an apple given to her by her embittered stepmother, though the message in this case would seem to have been along the lines of ‘I hate you, please die’ rather than ‘who is the fairest of them all’!

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