Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/April 1889/Plants in Witchcraft

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THE vast proportions which the great witchcraft movement assumed in by-gone years explains the magic properties which we find ascribed to so many plants in most countries. In the nefarious trade carried on by the representatives of this cruel system of sorcery certain plants were largely employed for working marvels, hence the mystic character which they have ever since retained. It was necessary, however, that these should be plucked at certain phases of the moon or seasons of the year, or from some spot where the sun was supposed not to have shone on it.[2] Hence Shakespeare makes one of his witches speak of "root of hemlock digg'd i' the dark," and of "slips of yew sliver'd in the moon's eclipse," a practice which was long kept up. The plants, too, which formed the witches' pharmacopœia, were generally selected either from their legendary associations or by reason of their poisonous and soporific qualities. Thus, two of those most frequently used as ingredients in the mystic caldron were the vervain and the rue, these plants having been specially credited with super-natural virtues. The former probably derived its notoriety from the fact of its being sacred to Thor, an honor which marked it out, like other lightning plants, as peculiarly adapted for occult uses. It was, moreover, among the sacred plants of the Druids, and was only gathered by them, "when the dog-star arose, from unsunned spots." At the same time, it is noteworthy that many of the plants which were in repute with witches for working their marvels were reckoned as counter-charms, a fact which is not surprising, as materials used by wizards and others for magical purposes have generally been regarded as equally efficacious if employed against their charms and spells.[3] Although vervain, therefore, as the "enchanters' plant," was gathered by witches to do mischief in their incantations, yet, as Aubrey says, it "hinders witches from their will," a circumstance to which Drayton further refers when he speaks of the vervain as "'gainst witchcraft much avayling." Rue, likewise, which entered so largely into magic rites, was once much in request as an antidote against such practices; and nowadays, when worn on the person in conjunction with agrimony, maiden-hair, broom-straw, and ground-ivy, it is said in the Tyrol to confer line vision, and to point out the presence of witches.

It is still an undecided question as to why rue should out of all other plants have gained its wide-spread reputation with witches, but M. Maury supposes that it was on account of its being a narcotic and causing hallucinations. At any rate, it seems to have acquired at an early period in England a superstitious reverence, for, as Mr. Conway says,[4] "we find the missionaries sprinkling holy water from brushes made of it, whence it was called 'herb of grace.'"

Respecting the rendezvous of witches, it may be noted that they very frequently resorted to hills and mountains, their meetings taking place "on the mead, on the oak sward, under the lime, under the oak, at the pear-tree." Thus the fairy rings which are often to be met with on the Sussex downs are known as hag-tracks,[5] from the belief that "they are caused by hags and witches, who dance there at midnight."[6] Their love for sequestered and romantic localities is widely illustrated on the Continent, instances of which have been collected together by Grimm, who remarks how "the fame of particular witch-mountains extends over wide kingdoms." According to a tradition current in Friesland,[7] "no woman is to be found at home on a Friday, because on that day they hold their meetings and have dances on a barren heath." Occasionally, too, they show a strong predilection for certain trees, to approach which as night-time draws near is considered highly dangerous. The Judas-tree (Cercis siliquastrum) was one of their favorite retreats, perhaps on account of its traditionary association with the apostle. The Neapolitan witches held their tryst under a walnut-tree near Benevento,[8] and at Bologna the peasantry tell how these evil workers hold a midnight meeting beneath the walnut-trees on St. John's Eve. The elder-tree is another haunt under whose branches witches are fond of lurking, and on this account caution must be taken not to tamper with it after dark."[9] Again, in the Netherlands, experienced shepherds are careful not to let their flocks feed after sunset, for there are wicked elves that prepare poison in certain plants—nightwort being one of these. Nor does any man dare to sleep in a meadow or pasture after sunset, for, as the shepherds say, he would have everything to fear. A Tyrolese legend[10] relates how a boy who had climbed a tree "overlooked the ghastly doings of certain witches beneath its boughs. They tore in pieces the corpse of a woman, and threw the portions in the air. The boy caught one, and kept it by him; but the witches, on counting the pieces, found that one was missing, and so replaced it by a scrap of alder-wood, when instantly the dead came to life again."

Similarly, also, they had their favorite flowers, one having been the foxglove, nicknamed "witches' bells," from their decorating their fingers with its blossoms; while in some localities the harebell is designated the "witches' thimble." On the other hand, flowers of a yellow or greenish hue were distasteful to them.[11]

In the witchcraft movement it would seem that certain plants were in requisition for particular purposes, these workers of darkness having utilized the properties of herbs to special ends. A plant was not indiscriminately selected, but on account of possessing some virtue as to render it suitable for any design that the witches might have in view. Considering, too, how multitudinous and varied were their actions, they had constant need of applying to the vegetable world for materials with which to carry out their plans. But foremost among their requirements was the power of locomotion wherewith to enable them, with supernatural rapidity, to travel from one locality to another. Accordingly, one of their most favorite vehicles was a besom or broom, an implement which, it has been suggested, from its being a type of the winds, is an appropriate utensil "in the hands of the witches, who are wind-makers and workers in that element."[12] According to the "Asiatic Register" for 1801, the Eastern as well as the European witches "practice their spells by dancing at midnight, and the principal instrument they use on such occasions is a broom." Hence, in Hamburg, sailors, after long toiling against a contrary wind, on meeting another ship sailing in an opposite direction, throw an old broom before the vessel, believing thereby to reverse the wind.[13] As, too, in the case of vervain and rue, the besom, although dearly loved by witches, is still extensively used as a counter-charm against their machinations—it being a well-known belief both in England and Germany that no individual of this stamp can step over a besom laid inside the threshold. Hence, also, in Westphalia, at Shrovetide, white besoms with white handles are tied to the cows' horns; and, in the rites connected with the midsummer fires kept up in different parts of the country, the besom holds a prominent place. In Bohemia, for instance, the young men collect for some weeks beforehand as many worn-out brooms as they can lay their hands on. These, after dipping in tar, they light—running with them from one bonfire to another—and when burned out they are placed in the fields as charms against blight.[14] The large ragwort—known in Ireland as the "fairies' horse"—has long been sought for by witches when taking their midnight journeys. Burns, in his "Address to the Deil," makes his witches "skim the muirs and dizzy crags" on "rag-bred nags" with "wicked speed." The same legendary belief prevails in Cornwall, in connection with the Castle Peak, a high rock to the south of the Logan stone. Here, writes Mr. Hunt,[15] "many a man and woman too, now quietly sleeping in the churchyard of St. Levan, would, had they the power, attest to have seen the witches flying into the Castle Peak on moonlight nights, mounted on the stems of the ragwort." Among other plants used for a similar purpose were the bulrush and reed, in connection with which may be quoted the Irish tale of the rushes and cornstalks that "turn into horses the moment you bestride them."[16] In Germany[17] witches were said to use hay for transporting themselves through the air.

When engaged in their various occupations they often considered it expedient to escape detection by assuming invisibility, and for this object sought the assistance of certain plants, such as the fern-seed. In Sweden, hazel-nuts were supposed to have the power of making invisible, and it may be remembered how, in one of Andersen's stories, the elfin princess has the faculty of vanishing at will by putting a wand in her mouth.[18] But these were not the only plants supposed to confer invisibility, for German folk-lore tells us how the far-famed luck-flower was endowed with the same wonderful property; and by the ancients the heliotrope was credited with a similar virtue, but which Boccaccio, in his humorous tale of Calandrino in the "Decameron," applies to the so-called stone: "Heliotrope is a stone of such extraordinary virtue that the bearer of it is effectually concealed from the sight of all present." Dante, in his "Inferno," xxiv, 92, further alludes to it:

"Amid this dread exuberance of woe
Ran naked spirits winged with horrid fear,
Nor hope had they of crevice where to hide,
Or heliotrope to charm them out of view."

In the same way, the agate was said to render a person invisible, and to turn the swords of foes against themselves.[19] The Swiss peasants affirm that the Ascension-Day wreaths of the amaranth make the wearer invisible, and in the Tyrol the mistletoe is credited with this property.

But some plants, as we have already pointed out, were credited with the magic property of revealing the presence of witches, and of exposing them engaged in the pursuit of plying their nefarious calling. In this respect the St. John's wort was in great request, and hence it was extensively worn as an amulet, especially in Germany on St. John's Eve, a time when not only witches by common report peopled the air, but evil spirits wandered about on no friendly errand. Thus the Italian name of "devil-chaser," from the circumstance of its scaring away the workers of darkness, by bringing their hidden deeds to light. This, moreover, accounts for the custom so prevalent in most European countries of decorating doorways and windows with its blossoms on St. John's Eve.

But, in spite of plants of this kind, witches somehow or other contrived to escape detection by the employment of the most subtle charms and spells. They generally, too, took the precaution of avoiding such plants as were antagonistic to them, displaying a cunning ingenuity in most of their designs which it was by no means easy to forestall. Hence in the composition of their philters and potions they infused the juices of the most deadly herbs, such as that of the nightshade or monk's-hood; and to add to the potency of these baleful draughts they considered it necessary to add as many as seven or nine of the most poisonous plants they could obtain, such, for instance, as those enumerated by one of the witches in Ben Jonson's "Masque of Queens" who says:

"And I ha' been plucking plants among
Hemlock, henbane, adder's tongue;
Nightshade, moonwort, libbard's bane,
And twice, by the dogs, was like to be ta'en,"

Another plant used by witches in their incantations was the sea or horned poppy, known in mediæval times as Ficus infernalis; hence it is further noticed by Ben Jonson in the "Witches' Song":

"Yes, I have brought to help our vows,
Horned poppy, cypress-boughs,
The fig-tree wild that grows on tombs.
And juice that from the larch-tree comes."

Then, of course, there was the wondrous moonwort (Botrychium lunaria), which was doubly valuable from its mystic virtue, for, as Culpepper[20] tells us, it was believed to open locks and possess other magic virtues. The mullein, popularly termed the hag-taper, was also in request, and the honesty (Lunaria biennis), "in sorceries excelling," was equally employed. By Scotch witches the woodbine was a favorite plant,[21] who, in effecting magical cures, passed their patients nine times through a girth or garland of green woodbine.

Again, a popular means employed by witches of injuring their enemies was by the bryony. Coles, in his "Art of Simpling," for instance, informs us how "they take likewise the roots of mandrake, according to some, or, as I rather suppose, the roots of briony, which simple folk take for the true mandrake, and make thereof an ugly image, by which they represent the person on whom they intend to exercise their witchcraft." And Lord Bacon, speaking of the mandrake, says: "Some plants there are, but rare, that have a mossie or downy root, and likewise that have a number of threads, like beards, as mandrakes, whereof witches and impostours make an ugly image, giving it the form of a face at the top of the root, and leave those strings to make a broad beard down to the foot." The witchcraft literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries contains numerous allusions to the diabolical practice—a superstition immortalized by Shakespeare. The mandrake, from its supposed mysterious character, was intimately associated with witches, and Ben Jonson, in his "Masque of Queens," makes one of the hags who has been gathering this plant say:

"I last night lay all alone
On the ground, to hear the mandrake groan;
And plucked him up, though he grew full low,
And, as I had done, the cock did crow."

We have already incidentally spoken of the vervain, St. John's wort, elder, and rue as antagonistic to witchcraft, but to these may be added many other well-known plants, such as the juniper, mistletoe, and blackthorn. Indeed, the list might be greatly extended—the vegetable kingdom having supplied in most parts of the world almost countless charms to counteract the evil designs of these malevolent beings. In England the little pimpernel, herb-paris, and cyclamen were formerly gathered for this purpose, and the angelica was thought to be specially noisome to witches. The snapdragon and the herb-betony had the reputation of averting the most subtle forms of witchcraft, and dill and flax were worn as talismans against sorcery. Holly is said to be antagonistic to witches, for, as Mr. Folkard[22] says, "in its name they see but another form of the word 'holy' and its thorny foliage and blood-red berries are suggestive of the most Christian associations." Then there is the rowan-tree or mountain-ash, which has long been considered one of the most powerful antidotes against works of darkness of every kind, probably from its sacred associations with the worship of the Druids. Hence it is much valued in Scotland, and the following couplet, of which there are several versions, still embodies the popular faith:

"Rowan-tree and red thread
Put the witches to their speed."

But its fame has not been confined to any one locality, and as far south as Cornwall the peasant, when he suspects that his cow has been "overlooked," twists an ashen twig round its horns. Indeed, so potent is the ash as a counter-charm to sorcery, that even the smallest twig renders their actions impotent; and hence, in an old ballad entitled "Laidley Wood," in the "Northumberland Garland," it is said:

"The spells were vain, the hag returned
To the queen in sorrowful mood,
Crying that witches have no power
Where there is row'n-tree wood."

Hence persons carry an ashen twig in their pocket, and according to a Yorkshire proverb—

"If your whipstick's made of row'n,
You may ride your nag through any town";

but, on the other hand, "Woe to the lad without a rowan-tree gall!" Possessed of such virtues, it is not surprising that the mystic ash should have been held in the highest repute, in illustration of which we find many an amusing anecdote. Thus according to a Herefordshire tradition, some years ago two hogsheads full of money were concealed in an underground cellar belonging to the Castle of Penyard, where they were kept by supernatural force. A farmer, however, made up his mind to get them out, and employed for the purpose twenty steers to draw down the iron door of the vault. On the door being slightly opened, a jackdaw was seen sitting on one of the casks, but the door immediately closed with a bang—a voice being heard to say:

"Had it not heen
or your quicken-tree goad,
And your yew-tree pin,
You and your cattle
Had all been drawn in."

Another anecdote current in Yorkshire is interesting, showing how fully superstitions of this kind are believed:[23] A woman was lately in my shop, and in pulling out her purse brought out also a piece of stick a few inches long. I asked her why she carried that in her pocket. 'Oh' she replied, 'I must not lose that, or I shall be done for.' 'Why so?' I inquired. 'Well,' she answered, 'I carry that to keep off the witches; while I have that about me, they can not hurt me.' On my adding that there were no witches nowadays, she instantly replied: ' Oh, yes! there are thirteen at this very time in the town, but so long as I have my rowan-tree safe in my pocket they can not hurt me.'"

Occasionally when the dairy-maid churned for a long time without making butter, she would stir the cream with a twig of mountain-ash, and beat the cow with another, thus breaking the witch's spell. But, to prevent accidents of this kind, it has long been customary in the northern counties to make the churn-staff of ash. For the same reason herd-boys employ an ash-twig for driving cattle, and one may often see a mountain-ash growing near a house. On the Continent the tree is in equal repute, and in Norway and Denmark rowan-branches are usually put over stable-doors to keep out witches, a similar notion prevailing in Germany. No tree, perhaps, holds such a prominent place in witchcraft-lore as the mountain-ash, its mystic power having rarely failed to render fruitless the evil influence of these enemies of mankind.

Lastly, to counteract the spell of the evil eye, from which many innocent persons were believed to suffer in the witchcraft period, many flowers have been in requisition among the numerous charms used. Thus, the Russian maidens still hang round the stem of the birch-tree red ribbon, the Brahmans gather rice, and in Italy rue is in demand. The Scotch peasantry pluck twigs of the ash, the Highland women the groundsel, and the German folk wear the radish. In early times the ringwort was recommended by Apuleius, and later on the fern was regarded as a preservative against this baneful influence. The Chinese put faith in the garlic; and, in short, every country has its own special plants. It would seem, too, that after a witch was dead and buried, precautionary measures were taken to frustrate her baneful influence. Thus, in Russia, aspen is laid on a witch's grave, the dead sorceress being then prevented from riding abroad.

The first mention of a canal to unite the oceans was made—to assert its impossibility—by an old Spanish historian, P. Acosta, who said, in 1588, that "no human power would be sufficient to cut through the strong and impenetrable bonds which God has put between the two oceans of mountains and iron rocks"; and he added, "If it were possible, it would appear to me to be very just to fear the vengeance of Heaven for attempting to improve the works which the Creator, in his almighty will and providence, ordered from the creation of the world."
  1. From "The Folk-Lore of Plants," in the press of D. Appleton & Co.
  2. See Moncure Conway's "Demonology and Devil-Lore," 1880, ii, 324.
  3. See Friend's "Flower-Lore," ii, 529, 530.
  4. "Demonology and Devil-Lore," ii, 324.
  5. Grimm, "Teutonic Mythology," 1883, iii, 1051.
  6. Folkard's "Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics," 1884, p. 91.
  7. Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," iii, 19.
  8. Grimm's "Teutonic Mythology," iii, 1052.
  9. See Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," iii, 267.
  10. See Folkard's "Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics," p. 209.
  11. Ibid., p. 10-1.
  12. See Kelly's "Indo-European Folk-Lore," pp. 225-227.
  13. See Hardwick's "Traditions, Superstitions, and Folk-Lore," p. 117; also Grimm's "Teutonic Mythology," 1883, iii, 1083.
  14. See Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," 1852, iii, 21, 137.
  15. "Popular Romances of the West of England," 1871, p. 830.
  16. Grimm's "Teutonic Mythology," iii, 1084.
  17. See Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," iii, 208, 209.
  18. See Yardley's "Supernatural in Romantic Fiction," 1880, pp. 131, 132.
  19. See Fiske, "Myths and Mythmakers," p. 44; also Baring-Gould's "Curious Myths of the Middle Age?," 1877, p. 398.
  20. "British Herbal."
  21. See Folkard's "Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics," p. 380.
  22. "Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics," p. 376.
  23. Henderson's "Folk-Lore of Northern Counties," 1879, p. 225.