Flowers, folklore and folk-medicine

Our Fathers of Old

Excellent herbs had our fathers of old –
Excellent herbs to ease their pain –
Alexanders and Marigold,
Eyebright, Orris and Elecampane –
Basil, Rocket, Valerian, Rue
(Almost singing themselves they run)
Vervain, Dittany, Call-me-to-you –
Cowslip, Melilot, Rose of the Sun.
Anything green that grew out of the mould
Was an excellent herb to our fathers of old.

Wonderful tales had our fathers of old,
Wonderful tales of the herbs and the stars –
The Sun was Lord of the Marigold,
Basil and Rocket belonged to Mars.
Pat as a sum in a division it goes –
(Every herb had a planet bespoke) –
Who but Venus should govern the Rose?
Who but Jupiter own the Oak?
Simply and gravely the facts are told
In the wonderful books of our fathers of old.

Wonderful little, when all is said,
Wonderful little our fathers knew.
Half their remedies cured you dead –
Most of their teaching was quite untrue –
“Look at the stars when a patient is ill.
(Dirt has nothing to do with disease),
Bleed and blister as much as you will,
Blister and bleed him as oft as you please.”
Whence enormous and manifold
Errors were made by our fathers of old.

Yet when the sickness was sore in the land,
And neither planets nor herbs assuaged,
They took their lives in their lancet-hand
And, oh, what a wonderful war they waged!
Yes, when the crosses were chalked on the door –
(Yes, when the terrible dead-cart rolled!)
Excellent courage our fathers bore –
None too learned, but nobly bold
Into the fight went our fathers of old.

If it be certain, as Galen says –
And sage Hippocrates holds as much –
“That those afflicted by doubts and dismays
Are mightily helped by a dead man’s touch,”
Then, be good to us, stars above!
Then, be good to us, herbs below!
We are afflicted by what we can prove,
We are distracted by what we know
So-ah, so!
Down from your heaven or up from your mould
Send us the hearts of our Fathers of old!

Rudyard Kipling

Yes, there were some dreadful examples of medicine in days long ago, yet there were also many examples of folk-medicine that did work and that we use today.

For example research in biomedical Egyptology shows that many were effective and that some 67% of the cures recorded in various papyri complied with the 1973 Edition of the British Pharmaceutical Codex. They used honey, a natural antibiotic, to dress wounds and treat throat irritations, for instance, and aloe vera was used to treat blisters, burns, ulcers and skin diseases. They also used mouldy bread to treat infections; one of the moulds that grows on bread is penicillin!

There are many more examples of cures that worked and the active ingredients are used in modern medicine. Indeed, there is a branch of science called ethnobotany or ethnopharmacology that studies folk-medicines with the hope of finding new and active ingredients to treat the plethora of diseases still suffered by humanity.

Regardless of whether they worked or not, reading and researching about the uses of plants and other materials in folk medicine as well as the theories our fathers of old had about illness is something that I find fascinating, when I have the time to dig and delve into it. I find lots of interesting tales about where the names of plants come from, so I learn more about etymology, history, folklore, legend and myth. I get to look at photographs and illustrations of the plants used, so widening my knowledge and experience of art and so inspiring me to create my own. One day, the tales may even help to inspire me to do my own creative writing, maybe poetry, about all the wonderful lore that surrounds our most familiar plants, crystals, rocks, horseshoes, and so on.

Apples and Brambles

I’ve chosen apples and brambles for today’s blog as they always seem to go together.  I noticed the blackberries on the brambles ripening during my jolly around the Valley Lines last week.  I’ve not been blackberrying in years and years, most probably not since I was a child.  I remember the abundance of blackberry pies, blackberry and apple crumbles, blackberry jam, apple jelly and frozen blackberries in our home.  With six children, there were plenty of us to gather them!  There were also the trips to collect whinberries (blueberries), as well as visits to ‘pick your own’ farms to harvest strawberries, raspberries and loganberries.

In later years, it would be my father who collected crab apples and blackberries to make his wines – along with sloes and young nettle leaves, young oak shoots, rosehips, rose petals, dandelions, and anything else he could brew.  I never appreciated his brews – all except the raspberry wine he made one year which was sweet and still tasted of the fruit – though others thought they were wonderful.  I do remember spending long hours writing out labels for his wine; I’ve always had nice handwriting and dabbled with calligraphy in the past too.  Now that’s something I’d forgotten about.

A few years ago a friend suggested, quite strongly, that I should collect sloes and make sloe gin, as well as to harvest the fruits of nature.  Well, I’ve not done so yet…

There are many recipes on tinternet and in books for blackberries, apples and so on, so I’ll not repost them.  Mind you, I could say the same about superstitions, myths, herbalism and the like, but I’m pulling together information for myself from many diverse sources, perhaps for future reference or just because I’m interested in it in the here and now, I don’t know.

Crab Apple (Pyrus malus)

(c)Angela Porter 1 Sept 2010The crab apple tree is native to Britain and is the wild ancestor of all the cultivated varieties of apple trees.  Apples of some sort were abundant before the Norman Conquest and were probably introduced into Britain by the Romans.  Twenty-two varieties of apples were mentioned by Pliny; there are now around two thousand cultivars.  In the Old Saxon manuscripts there are many mentions of apples and cider.

The Encyclopedia of Bartholomeus Anglicus, printed in Cologne around 1470, has a chapter on the apple:

Malus Appyll tree is a tree yt bereth apples and is a grete tree in itself…it is more short than other trees of the wood wyth knottes and rinelyd Rynde.  And makyth shadowe wythe thicke bowes and branches; and fayr with dyurs blossomes, and floures of swetnesse and lykynge,; with goode fruyte and noble.  And is gracious in syght and in taste and vertuous in medecyne…some beryth frute and harde, and some ryght soure and some ryght swete, with a good savoure and mery. [1].

The apple has been used as a symbol for sin, sexual seduction, beauty, love, sensuality, love between two men.  In art, Venus is often shown holding an apple as a symbol of love.    Apples also feature in many fairy tales, Snow White perhaps being the best known example where a poisoned apple puts Snow White into a deep sleep.

In the Old Testament of the Bible, it represents man’s fall; in the New Testament it represents man’s redemption from that fall.  The phrases ‘the apple of one’s eye’ and ‘a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver’ both come from the Bible.

The larynx in the human male is called the ‘Adam’s Apple’ because of the folk-tale about the Forbidden Fruit sticking in Adam’s throat and causing a bulge.

Heracles, the Greek hero, as part of his Twelve Labours had to travel to the Garden of the Hesperides.  His task there was to pick the golden apples growing on the Tree of Life that could be found at the centre of the garden.

Eris, the Greek goddess of discord, was disgruntled after she was excluded from the wedding of Peleus and Thetis.  To retaliate, she tossed a golden apple that was inscribed with ‘Kallisti’ – for the most beautiful one – into the wedding party.  Hera, Athene and Aphrodite, three of the goddesses attending the party, claimed the apple.  Paris of Troy was chosen to select the recipient of the apple.  After being bribed by both Hera and Athena, Aphrodite tempted him with the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta.  He awarded the apple to Aphrodite and in doing so indirectly caused the Trojan War.

Another Greek myth concerns Atlanta who raced all her suitors in an attempt to avoid marriage.  She outran all but Hippomenes (also known as Melanion) who defeated her not by cunning but by speed.  Hippomenes knew he could not win in a fair race, so he used three golden apples, which were gifts from Aphrodite, the goddess of love, to distract Atlanta.  It took all three apples and all of his speed, but Hippomenes was successful, winning the race and Atlanta’s hand.

In Norse mythology, Iduna, the goddess of Spring and youth, nurtures an apple orchard in Asgard.  Every evening she would feed an apple to the gods and goddess in order to keep their youthfulness.

In Celtic mythology, Conle receives an apple which feeds him for a year, but alsogives him an irresistible desire for fairyland.

The mystical Isle of Avalon, the famed placed of eternal rest for Celtic heroes, including King Arthur, literally means ‘apple land’ or ‘apple island’.

Isaac Newton, according to popular legend, came up with the theory of universal gravitation after observing an apple falling from a tree.

Wassailing the orchard trees on Christmas Eve, or the Eve of the Epiphany, is still practiced in Britain.  Herrick mentioned it among his ‘Ceremonies of Christmas Eve’:

Wassaile the trees, that they may beare
You many a Plum and many a Peare:
For more or lesse fruits they will bring,
As you do give them Wassailing

The Wassailing ceremony consisted of the farmer, his family and labourers going out into the orchard after supper, bearing with them a jug of cider and hot cakes.  The latter were placed in the boughs of the oldest of best bearing trees in the orchard, while the cider was flung over the trees after the farmer had drunk their health in some such fashion as the following:

Here’s to thee, old apple-tree!
Whence thou may’st bud, and whence thou may’st blow.
Hats full!  Cap full!
Bushel – bushel bags full!
And my pockets full too! Huzzah!

The toast was repeated three times, the men and boys often firing off guns and pistols, the women and children shouting loudly.

Roasted apples were usually placed in the pitcher of cider and were thrown at the trees with the liquid.

A mixture of hot spiced ale, wine or cider with apples and bits of toast floating in it was known as ‘lamb’s wool’.  The name is derived from the Irish ‘la mas nbhal‘ meaning ‘the feast of the apple gathering’ (All Hallow’s Eve), which is pronounced something like ‘lammas-ool’ and this became corrupted into ‘lamb’s wool’.  Each person who drank the spicy beverage would also take out an apple, wish good luck to the company, and eat it.

It was believed that if an apple tree blossomed out of season then misfortune or death was foretold.

If the Sun shone through the branches of apple trees on Christmas Day, or Old Christmas Day, then there would be an abundant crop of apples.

Peel an apple so that the peel remains in one long strip.  Throw the strip over the shoulder to form the initial of a potential husband on the ground.  This is an activity that is performed particularly at Hallowe’en.

To indicate the direction of a lover’s home, flick an apple pip into the air while reciting  ‘North, south, east, west, tell me where my love does rest‘.

Children were warned that Awd Goggie and Lazy Lawrence were nursery bogies that protected orchards and unripe fruit.

The proverb ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’ seems to have been first recorded in the form ‘Eat an apple on going to bed and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread’.

Bramble or blackberry (Rubus fruticosus)

Blackberry (c)Angela Porter 31 Aug 2010The shoots of bramble have the ability to root where they touch the ground thus forming an arch.  Sufferers from boils, rheumatism and hernia were passed through the arch formed in this way.  Sometimes, a child suffering from whooping cough was passed under the arch seven times.  The cough was then thought to leave the child and stay within the bramble.

In the Highlands of Scotland, people used a length of bramble shoot entwined with ivy and rowan to ward off evil spirits.

Eating blackberries after the first frost was considered unlucky. In the UK, superstition says that blackberries should not be picked after Michaelmas (29 September), or the 10 October (Michaelmas by the old calendar).  It is said the devil has claimed them by urinating over them, spitting on them, stamping on them or wagged his tail over them and so leaving his mark on the leaves.  The link with Michaelmas is because this feast celebrates the battle when Archangel Michael drove Satan out of Heaven and hurled him down to Earth; perhaps the joke is that he landed in a bramble bush, but this is not clear.

Note to self…and other reflections

More art to do!  Yay!  Got some ideas … maybe … need to work on my more stylised, black-line and colour work …using acrylic inks or paints for the vibrancy of colour …

I’m so glad I started a blog, regardless of whether anyone reads it or not.  It’s given me a focus to both research, write and be inspired to create art.

If I’m honest I’ve been seriously lacking that focus and impetus for a long while thanks to my emotional state … I do tend towards depression, though I do my best to ameliorate it by engaging in activities that give me pleasure, but lately nothing much has done that … I’ve felt like I’ve been going through the motions, with no real purpose to them.  Not that everything needs a purpose, and doing something for the sake of the joy or contentment it brings is purpose enough.  However, I’ve been struggling with allowing myself to do pleasurable things, to feel the joy they bring … and perhaps the recognition of this this morning will help me move forward with my therapy, and in allowing myself to feel joy and pleasure.

As I look back at earlier entries, I can see how my approach is slowly evolving in terms of how I present information.  I’ll eventually work out a consistent ‘format’ that suits me in terms of colours of ‘quotes’, illustrations, references, hyperlinks.

  2. Apple symbolism on Wikipedia
  3. Roy Vickery – Plant-lore
  4. Bramble on HubPages
  5. Steve Roud – The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland.
  6. Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud – A Dictionary of English Folklore.

Beech and Sycamore Plant-lore

A bit more trolling round the world weird web, as well as my reference books, for information on some of the plants I saw on my travels on Friday.  I get lost far too easily in the search for knowledge and information, but it’s always an enjoyable journey.

Beech (Fagus sylvatica)

Around the UK wishes can often be seen tied to beech trees.  This custom has it’s origins in Celtic tree mythology where the beech is known as the tree of wishes.  Fallen beech branches were seen as invitations to make a wish by writing it on a beech twig and then pushing the twig deep into the ground.  The wish would then be taken by the wishing fairies to the Fairy Queen who would consider it. [1] Rods of beech are often favoured by water diviners. [2]

The Greek deities Apollo and Athena were said to have sat, as vultures, in the branches of an oak or a beech tree to watch the war between the Trojans and the Greeks. [3, 4]

Beech nuts are known as mast [5].

Norse tradition says that tablets of beech were used to make the very first writing tablets for the runes.  It is also a sacred wood of the Summer Solstice [10].

Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus)

The Sycamore is also known as the Great Maple [5].  The winged seeds of the sycamore are called helicopters and were used in flying competitions by children.  The sycamore was the favoured wood for making love spoons in Wales, which are made from a single piece of wood [6].

In Montgomeryshire there was a belief that sycamore trees kept the fairies away and stopped them from spoiling the milk [7].

In Scotland the feudal lairds used sycamore tress, known as dool or joug trees, as their gallows.  Further south, in Wiltshire, sycamores had unlucky associations, perhaps because they were also sometimes known as ‘hanging trees’ [8].

The Sycamore is sometimes called the Martyrs’ tree after the Tolpuddle Martyrs who first met beneath a sycamore tree in 1843 and formed a secret society to fight starvation and poor wages.  Unfortunately, they were caught and sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia.  They were pardoned after two years and returned home [9].

  1. Tumbling Woods
  2. Oaken Woods
  3. Mystical World Wide Web
  6. The Woodland Trust
  8. Roy Vickery – Plant Lore
  9. Forest of Leeds
  10. Spiritual Forums

Morning musings…morning meanderings

What is this blog about?

I’ve just been doing a bit of Luddite-style journalling – pen and paper that is! And I was musing about why on Earth I’d want to blog when I keep a journal, and this perhaps seems as a doubling up of work.

However, much of my Luddite-journal is very personal and I’d not share with anyone, no matter how close they are to me, and no-one will have access to them until I “have shuffled off this mortal coil”.

I suppose that this blog is a vehicle for me to share with anyone who wishes to read about my fairly random thoughts, research, insights, questions, perhaps even little stories, poems and some of my arty-crafty stuff. In other words things I’d like to share with others, but don’t really have the opportunities to do in my ‘real life’, and I think the relative anonymity the blog affords me may allow me to do so.

Like so many, there are parts of my life that are kept fairly separate, for instance my ‘day job’ and my spirituality and spiritual practices. My spirituality is with me always, but I can’t talk about it, my practices, or express it openly in my job, with those I work with, although I do get away with meditation during my working day when I begin to feel stressed or upset! The people I interact with spirituality are good souls (mostly), but generally have a fairly narrow spiritual view, and I tend to be a searcher looking for more, trying things from different traditions, working out what sits well with me, what works for me, what helps me find words for what I instinctively feel inside of me, finding ways to express to express this inner knowledge and understanding, changing and adapting things, melding and moulding them into something that is uniquely me. I do not, and would never, profess to be an expert, to have the one right answer, I’m just a seeker looking for what is right for me.

Along my way some of my musings, discoveries, thoughts, practices may help others also seeking their way, whether they agree or disagree with what I may write. Indeed, it is often through a disagreement that you can arrive at a better understanding of what is right for you. I sometimes think you can only find out who you truly are by finding out what it is that you are not (and that may be what others have told you to suit their own conscious or unconscious purposes/needs).

Spirituality is just one thing it’s difficult for me to share with others. I find the same is true of my art (to a much lesser degree), writing (about the same degree), and my interests in so many things, including folklore, folk-medicine (ethnopharmacology or ethnobotany), archaeology, history, etymology, self-help, counselling, forensic psychology, cookery, nature, astrology, astronomy…and that’s just a few things!

I’m very much a ‘random’ and sporadic researcher/reader/student of all the things I’m interested in. The cycles of interest wax and wane randomly, depending on whether something has sparked an interest in me. I tend to dive into that interest wholeheartedly for a while – a few weeks or months – and as my interest is beginning to feel quite sated, some other spark comes along and re-ignites another flame of passion and so off I go.

It must be frustrating for those who know me, who must think I’m quite shallow in my interests and passions as I seemingly flit from one thing to another.  I know I’ve often questioned how serious I am and how deeply I get into things, but I know I dig as deeply as I need to into whatever is my current passion (or passions), and that interest/passion never entirely departs, it just becomes somnolent for a while…until I’m ready to continue digging deeper!

A dear friend of mine always said he was determined to turn me into a polymath (see or Wikipedia) Much more difficult to do in this day and age of so much information and knowledge. Polymaths were far more common in the past – Isaac Newton for instance. I think it’s quite clear, if my prior ramblings in this entry are clear, that I love to learn! If I didn’t have to work to pay the bills and keep a roof above my head (and keep my pusscat in Purina food!) and could afford it I’d be a perpetual student! As it is, I read, I browse the world weird web (with that sack of salt by my side!), listen to others, and soak it all up, processing it in my own internal way.

A cute tale about me being a sponge for knowledge is of a young person I worked with. They were discussing with another person what they’d like to do for a career and asked if they knew what qualifications they’d need. The person listening said that she didn’t know. The young person then suggested ‘Let’s go and ask …, she is the internet after all!’. Praise, maybe, though I would never, ever claim to be such a thing!

I can be a ‘mistress of the art of the Google’ when others fail to find what they wish while trolling around the weird wide web. So, perhaps another use of this blog will be to keep a record of my wanderings as I come across things of interest, or otherwise, in a way my Luddite-journal doesn’t! No doubt a series of wanderings that are unique to me.

It may turn out interesting to see how this blog evolves and develops.

Morning meanderings

I love alliteration – you have been warned!

Anyway, my morning meanderings through the world weird web included a search for moon-phase information to go into my Luddite-Journal, and that led me to an Astrological Diary that I will almost certainly be purchasing to use next year. My only whinge about diaries is that they rarely have a full year planner for the next year, and as one of my evening activities involves taking bookings at year in advance then I really need it! I guess I’ll just have to go looking for something I can stick in the back of the diary to accommodate my needs.

I did find a moon phase table for 2010 that suited my purpose (without me having to type it all out from my ephemeris!) and it’s a shame I couldn’t find one for 2011 at the same website. However, the search did lead me to the diary I found, and will be ordered very soon!

I do have an interest in astrology – but not your newspaper astrology, the ‘proper’ stuff. I’ve found my natal chart and the analysis of it to be most helpful in understanding myself and helping to heal myself from the wounds of the past, and much more than that. When done properly it can really help to understand what is going on in an individual’s life at any time. It is my experience that it can be incredibly specific, detailed and helpful, but only when done well. It’s not something I rely on and live my life by, but I do find it interesting to study. Perhaps it’s because science pooh-poohs it that I find it so fascinating – I can be terribly rebellious in such cases! I may be a scientist by education, but … it just fascinates me! And it is something I feel I ‘should’ spend more time on, but when I start I get so engrossed that nothing else gets done…