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8958Samhain herb/plant lore

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  • Kiara
    Oct 25, 2011
      The folklore and historical uses of plants are popular areas of study with many
      herbalists, gardeners and pagans. Folklore focuses on the legends and myths
      associated with various plants as opposed to the scientific knowledge associated
      with the fields of study such as botany and horticulture.

      All Hallow's Eveor Samhain, the ancient Celtic festival day, traditionally
      marked the end of summer and beginning of winter. Long before modern-day
      Halloween costumes and candy overtook the proceedings, the final day of October
      was a time of reflection, both of past events and of loved ones who had recently
      died. At the same time, the evening provided a chance to look forward and try to
      divine what the new year would bring.

      While that spirit of reflection has been lost on most of us who celebrate the
      holiday's modern incarnation, the symbols remain. Images of cauldrons and
      broomsticks, pumpkins and witches endure as icons of Halloween. Steeped in
      history and lore, many of these symbols have a connection to herbsthat reveals
      users long forgotten.

      Herbalist or Witch
      The historical image of a cauldron bubbling over with magical potions, for
      example, probably originated from the large pot in which women of the Middle
      Agesboiled ingredients to produce a variety of medicinal simples and compounds.
      Simpling and compounding are the arts of collecting medicinal herbs, flowers,
      fruits, and roots in order to keep a necessary supply of potions, ointments,
      salves and poltices on hand. Women of the household most often conducted and
      supervised the simpling that occured in their household. During the Medieval and
      Renaissanceperiods, the disciplines of herbalism, alchemy and magic often
      overlapped and these women sometimes added the roll of spell-casting to their
      role of creating homemade herbal cures.

      As for the contents of the symbolic cauldron, Shakespeare immortalized these
      herbsin Macbeth (Act 4, Scene 1), with the chant:Double, double, toil and
      Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
      Fillet of a fenny snake,
      In the cauldron boil and bake;
      Eye of newt and toe of frog,
      Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
      Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
      Lizard's leg and owlet's wing,
      For a charm of powerful trouble,
      Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

      Sinister-sounding as they may seem, the ingredients used by Shakespeare' s
      witches were nothing more than the folk names of a variety of common herbs. Eye
      of newt could have been any of the daisy-type flowers such as English daisy
      (Bellis perenis). Wool of bat is more commonly known as holly (Ilex aquifolium);
      tongue of dog is hound's tongue (Cynoglossum officinale); and adder's fork today
      is called serpent's tongue (Erythronium americanum). We know fillet of a fenny
      snake as chickweed (Stellaria holostea), while toe of frog may have been a type
      of buttercup such as Ranunculus bulbosus.

      And what about the witches themselves? The word "witch," another ubiquitous
      image of Halloween, translates from the old Anglo-Saxon word wicce, which means
      "wise one." The word "witchcraft" literally means "the craft of the wise ones."
      Also known as the village wise woman, cunning man, tribal shaman, or hedge
      witch, this person was the healer, teacher, and care-giver of his or her people.

      European gypsies of the Middle Ages combined their knowledge of herbs, magic,
      and divination in their day-to-day activities. Superstitious people often
      labeled these forest-dwelling gypsies as witches and sorcerers. They were
      nothing more or less than the herb men and women or shamans of their tribes.

      A Clean Sweep
      Broomsticks are an ancient symbol representing womanhood, while pitchforks are
      an ancient symbol representing manhood. Brooms, a symbol often associated with
      witchcraft, are used to sweep away, or cleanse an area of negative energy prior
      to performing magical and healing rituals. Wise women and witches would also use
      their broomsticks to perform a sort of imitative magic. They would go out into
      the fields and dance and leap high into the air while astride their brooms and
      pitchforks. It was thought that this would cause the crops to grow as tall as
      they were able to jump into the air.Today, the broomstick conjures the mood of
      Halloween for young revelers - and it's another image with a meaning steeped in
      history. In centuries past, Samhain marked the time of year when witches would
      "fly" in order to divine the future. The image of witches flying off on their
      magic broomstick correlates to their use of magical flying ointments during
      their divinatory endeavors. After the witches covered themselves with the
      ointment they would lay down by the fireplace in order tokeep safe and warm
      while on their shamanistic journeys.

      Superstitious people, believing the witches could literally fly, assumed they
      climbed aboard broomsticks and rose through their chimneys to terrorize the
      countryside with their wicked deeds. But the "flight" was really one of spirit.
      All Hallow's Eve marked a time when the boundaries between the worlds of the
      living and the dead thinned. With the help of hallucinogenic herbs, those
      seeking spirit flight could explore this realm, using their experiences to
      divine clues about what the future held. The symbol of this flight, the witch's
      broom (also known as a besom), has historical associations with a variety of

      Broom (Cytisus scoparius)
      Bundles of this plant were attached to a handle and used in cleansing rituals
      prior to performing magic. This practice was thought to sweep away any negative
      energy and evil spiritsthat might interfere with the magic being performed by
      the witch. Broom is also a narcotic and depresses respiration.

      Celery seeds (Apium graveolens)
      These seeds were eaten by witches before flying so that they wouldn't become
      dizzy and fall off their broomsticks.

      Ragwort stalks (Senecio spp.)
      According to legend, the stalks of this plant formed the basis for magical
      flying brooms.

      Ash (Fraxinum spp.)
      Ash often made up the handle of the broom and had the added benefit of
      preventing a witch from drowning.

      Birch (Betula pendula)
      The branches of this tree could also serve as the traditional witch's broom. A
      bundle of birch twigs could be bound to one end of the broom handle using a
      flexible, vine-type plant such as osiers.

      Willow (Salix alba)
      This plant was also known as osiers. The larger branches of this plant were used
      to make the handle of the witch's broom. The longer, pliable twigs would be used
      to bind other materials to the broom handle.

      Other plants were associated with witches' brooms, including bulrush (Typha
      latifolia), mullein (Verbascum thapus), and even corn stalks, if nothing else
      was available.

      As for the actual "flying," we again investigate herbsfor some insight. The
      narcotic and hallucinogenic properties of many herbsserved in witchcraft and
      magic rituals during ancient and Medieval times. Many of these herbsbecame
      ointments with the addition of melted fat. Rubbed into the skin, ointments would
      carry the chemical properties of the herbsinto the blood stream, causing a
      variety of physiological effects - irregular heartbeat, tingling, numbness,
      delirium, mental confusion, weightlessness, and hallucinations. These effects
      would create the feeling of flight, especially since the witches would often
      fast prior to going on their shamanistic journeys to heighten the effects of the
      herbs they used.

      The motivation behind the desire for flight lay in the belief that upon leaving
      the physical body after death, spiritsmoved to the astral plane. Witches thought
      it possible to temporarily depart the body and visit this astral plane when in a
      trance or sleep like state. Because the astral bodies of both the living (as
      visitors) and the dead traveled on the same astral plane, the possibility
      existed that the two could meet. This was the goal of "flying." This spirit
      flight was really a type of divinatory shamanism and is still practiced by many
      tribal healers such as modern-day shamans and medicine men. Halloween was
      thought to be one of the best times of the year to practice this type of
      divination. The boundaries between the world of the living and the world of the
      dead were thought to be at their weakest during this time. After the effects of
      the herbs wore off the visions the witches had would be interpreted for clues
      about what the future held.

      Flying Potions and Poisons
      Several herbs would help facilitate astral projection and spiritual visions. The
      typical ingredients that would have been part of a witch's flying
      ointmentincluded aconite (Aconitum napellus), deadly nightshade (Atropa
      belladonna), mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) , thornapple (Datura stramonium),
      blood root (Potentilla erectus), poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), black
      hellebore (Helleborus niger), and henbane (Hyoscyamus niger).

      Aconite (or wolf's bane), according to legend this was Hecate's herb, the Greek
      goddess of the Underworld. Aconite was purportedly made from the foaming mouth
      of Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the entry to the underworld. The
      seeds of aconite, when bound with the skin of a lizard, would render a witch
      invisible. Wolf's bane also had the reputation as a deterrent against attacks by
      werewolves and vampiresand is a powerful sedative. An overdose of this herb is
      fatal and was at one time used to kill wolves hence the folk name wolf's
      bane.Black hellebore (aka Christmas rose) this herb is a strong narcotic and a
      traditional ingredient of the witches flying ointments. It was once thought to
      be able to cure anyone suffering from madness.

      Byrony the forked roots of this plant were sometimes used as a substitute for
      mandrake and sold under the name English mandrake. Natural body shaped pieces of
      the root were believed to be the most magically potent. Disreputable
      apothecaries carved the root to make it look more like the human body.

      Deadly nightshade (aka witch's berry) is related to both mandrake and henbane.
      Atropos, one of the three Greek goddesses of Fate, used this plant to cut the
      thread of life - hence the plant's Latin name, Atropa belladonna. Because of the
      plant's toxic nature, some also believed it to be the favorite plant of the
      Devil. Indeed, the herbalist John Gerard remarked upon the poisonous nature of
      deadly nightshade in his book The Herbal, or General History of Plants: "A plant
      so furious and deadly; for it bringeth such as have eaten thereof into a dead
      sleepe wherein many have died."

      Hemlock (aka beaver poison) this plant acts as a sedative, induces a sense of
      giddiness and causes the sensation of flying. This is an extremely poisonous
      plant and causes the respiratory nerves to become paralyzed which causes the
      victim to suffocate. A fatal dose of hemlock was taken by the Greek philosopher
      Socrates c. 399 BC.

      Mandrake (or sorcerer's root) was considered a particularly dangerous herb. The
      roots, which have a shape resembling the human body, formed the basis for magic
      "poppets.," The root was thought to emit such a horrific scream when removed
      from the ground, so the folklore goes, that the noise would kill any person or
      beast unfortunate enough to hear it. The trick was to tie a sacrificial dog to
      the end of the root then run away quickly. When the dog went to follow its
      master, it would pull the root out of the ground. The witch would then return at
      a later time to collect the root and the remains of the dog.
      Thornapple (aka devil's trumpet) is a powerful narcotic with stupefying effects.
      Its uses in ancient times included a potion that would subdue victims marked for
      ritual sacrifice. During the witch hunts of the Medieval and Renaissance
      periods, it also helped numb those on their way to execution. Fellow witches
      hiding in a crowd of onlookers would surreptitiously pass a sponge soaked with a
      thornapple potion to the accused.

      For further details regarding henbane (aka Devil's eye) including the magical
      attributes associated with it, see the article Henbane; Horrible or Heavenly? by
      Kay Morgenstern which was published in the Fall 2002 issue of the Herb

      A Dark Past Brightens
      Witches have endured a bad reputation, to say the least, not to mention outright
      persecution. If these healers could use their plants for medicinal purposes,
      went the witch-hut logic, they could also use them for evil. Anyone known to
      grow, gather or utilize the mysterious herbs associated with witchcraft often
      earned the "witch" label, even if he or she only harvested the herbs for
      culinary purposes of for self-medication.

      The person most often accused of witchcraft was the village wise woman, also
      known as the village healer or herbalist, who dispensed a wide variety of
      botanical cures. Many of these earth-healers were poor, elderly women living
      solitary lives apart from the rest of the townsfolk, usually in or near the
      woods where they could forage for food and medicines among the roots and herbs.

      Fortunately, as the witch hunts wound down, the so-called witches were finally
      left alone to go back to practicing their craft of healing and helping out their
      neighbors. Herbalism went on to enjoy a renaissance, complete with widespread
      mainstream acceptance. And of greatest significance to trick-or-treaters, All
      Hallow's Eve became a decidedly more festive affair - one with enduring ties to
      complex plant lore.A Final Note - Before the Jack-o-Lantern
      On Samhain in ancient Ireland, revelers hollowed out large turnips (Brassica
      rapa) or even potatoes or beets, carved them into frightening designs, and lit
      them from within with either a candle or a piece of burning coal. They'd then
      place these lanterns in the windows and doorways of their homes for two reasons.
      First, they believed the designs would scare off evil spirits, preventing them
      from entering the house. Second, the hollowed creations would let the spiritsof
      their departed loved ones know they were welcomed into the house during this
      time of year. These turnip lanterns were the precursor to our modern-day
      Jack-o-lantern. The larger, easier-to-carve pumpkins found in the New World made
      ready substitutes for Irish immigrants arriving in America during the Irish
      potato famine of the 1800's.

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