Folklore in My Garden: Lavender

Lavender, one of the most beloved of herbs, has been is use for more than 2500 years. The Romans are credited with naming this most aromatic of herbs, some say because of its use in washing (lavare), but others believe it derives from “livendula” (bluish.) I’m inclined to favor the latter theory.  In ancient Greece and India, and also in the Bible, this plant is called spikenard.

Although today, lavender is strongly associated with England , it is not native to northern Europe, but to the warmer climate of the Mediterranean. Originally, it was probably put under domesticate production in Arabia.  In Egypt, Phoenicia, and Arabia, lavender was used as a perfume and for mummification.  It spread from Greece into Europe around 600 BCE. The Romans made use of it in their elaborate baths.  By the early middle ages, washerwomen were known as lavenders, for spreading clothes to dry upon the bushes and for scenting clean clothes in storage. It was during the the same eras that monasteries began cultivating lavender in their “physic gardens”. Hildegard von Bingen made lavender water, a mixture of lavender and gin or brandy, as a remedy for migraine.
imageMuch of the folklore surrounding lavender is ancient. Cleopatra is said to have worn its scent (her secret weapon!) to seduce Julius Caesar and  Marc Antony, and some claim that the asp that delivered that fatal bite was hidden among her lavender bushes. Adam and Eve are credited with bringing the plant with them when expelled from the Garden of Eden. The Bible also tells us that Judith wore perfume containing lavender to charm Holofernes before killing him, and in the Gospel of Luke, Mary washes  the feet of Jesus and anoints them with ointment containing spikenard, one of its other names. According to one story, lavender got its scent from the clothing of  Jesus when his mother hung his clothes on a bush to dry. Many Christians crafted crosses with it to ward off evil.

A natural insect repellant, lavender was pressed into use as a plague antidote , worn in bunches tied to one’s wrists. (It probably repelled the fleas whose bites caused plague.) After robbing graves, thieves washed up with a concoction called “Four Thieves Vinegar”, to protect themselves from contagion. In France, it was noted that glovers, who perfumed their products with the herb, never contracted cholera. In the New World, the Quakers were the first to cultivate and sell lavender.

European royalty made lavish use of lavender in perfumes and foods. It has long been associated with love. In Tudor times, young maidens would sip on  lavender tea and say, “St Luke, St Luke, be kind to me. In my dreams, let me my true love see.”  Alpine girls would tuck some lavender under their lover’s pillow to foster romantic thoughts; once married they would put some lavender under the mattress to ensure marital passion and avoid quarrels. In England during the 1670’s, a love song emerged that survives in varying forms to this day:

Lavenders green, Diddle, diddle,  Lavenders blue

You must love me, diddle, diddle, cause I love you,

I heard one say, diddle, diddle, since I came hither,

That you and I, diddle, diddle, must lie together.

The modern version can be heard here.

Because of lavender’s purported ability to repel evil, it was (is) often used, especially as incense,  around Midsummer’s Day, in conjunction with St. John’s Wort. Cleopatra notwithstanding, girls who wore lavender sprigs on their persons were supposed by be well able to preserve their chastity. In magic, witches are said to prize the herb for its ability to increase clairvoyance, and a mixture  chamomile , lavender, mugwort, and rose petals will attract sprites, fairies, brownies, and elves.

Lavender has brought color and fragrance into our lives since time immemorial. Today there are over 115 species cultivated all over the world, and lavender products are inexpensive and readily available. Bring the charm of this ancient plant into your own life.

Folklore: Lions, Lambs, and March

“March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb” is probably the most famous and popular saying about this transitional month. But why those particular animals? Some authorities believe that the lion and lamb saying has a heavenly connection. The constellation Leo, the lion, is rising in the east at the beginning of March, hence the “comes in like a lion,” while Aries, the ram, sets in the west at the end of March, and so “will go out like a lamb.”

Perhaps the strongest literary and historical association of this month is not with the weather, but with the “ides”, or middle day of the month, in the ancient Roman calendar. Julius Caesar, who in Shakespeare’s play unwisely ignores the soothsayer’s warning, “Beware the Ides of March!”, was murdered on the Ides (15th) of March in a conspiracy led by Brutus and Cassius.

imageThe proverbial phrase “mad as a March hare” has a similar origin: a “March hare” is a brown hare in the breeding season, noted for its leaping, boxing, and chasing in circles in its mating ritual.

The best known of March holidays, if Easter falls in April, is St. Patrick’s Day, the 17th. Saint Patrick used the

three-leafed clover (or shamrock) to explain the holy Trinity and cleansed Ireland of snakes by driving them into the sea with his staff (or shillelagh). To this day, shamrocks and shillelaghs are well known symbols of St. Patrick’s Day, and, there are no snakes in Ireland. St Patrick’s real name was Maewyn Succat. No wonder he changed it.

Thriller: Cabal of the Westford Knight, by David S. Brody

Cabal of The Westford Knight: Templars at the Newport Tower
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The daVinci Code crosses the pond to Westford, Massachusetts, following clues about the secret Jesus/Magdalene bloodline hidden in Scotland’s and the Sinclair family’s Roslyn Chapel. Cabal of the Westford Knight is based upon legends concerning the infamous Templar Knights, a band of which is supposed by some to have arrived in what is now New England, more than a hundred years before Columbus. Cameron Thorne is a small town lawyer who grew up in the region, and in the course of ordinary business, he stumbles into a diabolical conspiracy by parties unknown. The Knights are rumored to have left a priceless treasure, and Thorne quickly learns that there are those more than willing to kill for it. He determines to reach that treasure, whatever it may be, before the conspirators can.

Author Brody weaves existing artifacts and places into a historical fiction thriller that expands from local legend to archaeological fact to world wide religious conspiracy. Westford Knight is a labyrinthine tale, dependent upon countless twists, turns and incredibly lucky breaks. Amply supplemented with photos, it invites the reader to consider the physical evidence and draw his/her own conclusions. Character development is sacrificed to the necessities of a complex, galloping plot, though there is a budding romance between Thorne and a beautiful, brainy historian. Together, the couple track down artifacts and draw some pretty spectacular inferences, all while dodging bullets and jumping off bridges. Brody’s writing is competent but extremely literal, and appears to have been thoroughly researched. For readers interested in further exploration on this topic, he maintains a couple of interactive websites, referenced in acknowledgments.

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Nonfiction Worth Reading: Strangely Wrought Creatures of Life & Death, by Gary R. Varner

Strangely Wrought Creatures of Life & Death: Ancient Symbolism in European and American Architecture

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Strangely Wrought Creatures is subtitled Ancient Symbolism in European and American Architecture. The first half of this slim volume (157 pages) discussing those two iconic figures, the gargoyle and the green man, which have been a feature in ecclesiastical architecture for more than a millennium. Quoting from his own research and that of others, Gary Varner speculates about the reasons for the inclusion of these “pagan” figures in most of Europe’s great churches and cathedrals, and about what they might symbolize (there are five times more green men in one English cathedral than images of Jesus!) He does the same in the book’s second half, where he covers such enigmatic creatures as dragons, unicorns, mermaids, and griffins, and others. The upshot of his study is that there is much disagreement about what these image “mean”, and why prelates would allow such carvings in a place of Christian worship.

The book is liberally illustrated with photos of strange creatures located on buildings old and new, primarily in England, France, and America. Why do twenty and twenty-first century folks find these images so compelling? Perhaps, Varner believes, because we long for connections to our distant past, and are influence by our embedded archetypal memories. This is a good overview for readers new to the topic, but for those with broader knowledge about it, there’s little new to be found in its pages.

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Thriller: The Cold Calling, by Will Kingdom

The Cold Calling

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For DI Bobby Maiden, life after death is hell. Resuscitated after a hit and run, he’s haunted by dark, eerie dreams of being buried alive. Before the accident, he knew he was being fitted up by his supervisor, a crooked administrator who works hand in glove with the local hoods. When the supervisor visits him in the hospital, Bobby knows he’d better disappear before he’s forced to die another death.

The nurse who brought Bobby back to life is an alternative healer, and she hides him out with a friend, Marcus, who lives in the ruin of an ancient castle across the Welsh border. Marcus’s elderly housekeeper experienced, during childhood, a vision of the Virgin Mary at Black Knoll, the prehistoric burial mound above his home. Enter Cindy Mars-Lewis, a cross dressing entertainer who believes he has shamanic powers, and American journalist Grayle Underhill, looking for the sister who has disappeared somewhere among these ancient hills. When it appears that a serial killer is marauding, all hell breaks loose.

Will Kingdom is a pen name of Phil Rickman, the British novelist better known for his Merrilee Watkins series. There is no one writing today who is better at unrolling stories atmospheric with history and folklore, populated by magnetic characters, both good and bad, and topped with a credible dollop of the paranormal. Cold Calling has a multi-layered plot written tightly enough that the reader discovers the identity of the killer only when those in the story do. Green men, stone circles, and ley lines all play prominent roles, drawing the reader into the mystery.

I’ve said this in others of my Rickman reviews and it bears repeating: Phil Rickman is an author who deserves a wider audience in America. He’s outstanding. Check him out.

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Folklore in My Garden: Roses

We are fortunate to have many varieties of roses in our Connecticut garden, and they are running riot right now. I cannot take any of the credit other than consulting, for my hardworking husband does all the bull work. Walking our paths, enjoying the luxuriant display has made me curious about the role of the rose in history and folklore.

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. By the time Shakespeare wrote his immortal lines, the rose was well ensconced in the popular imagination.

Roses have been part of world folklore for several thousand years. They were probably first cultivated in Persia. Wall paintings and objects depicting roses were found in Egyptian tombs (5th century B.C.). The Greek poetess Sappho called it the Queen of Flowers, and it was believed to have sprung from the blood of Adonis. Confucius (551-479 B.C.), wrote that the Emperor of China had over 600 books about Roses. The Chinese (5th century B.C.), extracted oil of roses from plants grown in the Emperor’s garden which could only be used by nobles and dignitaries. A commoner found in possession of this oil was put to death. Roman emperors had their floors strewn with petals, and brides and goddesses were crowned with roses. Cleopatra had a passion for roses. To seduce Mark Antony, she had the palace floors carpeted with rose petals and her chamber filled with two feet deep with red rose petals and fountains filled with rose water. One of better known fables from 7th century history involves Mohammed, who ordered that a bouquet of red roses be thrown into a pool to determine his wife’s fidelity. If the flowers turned yellow, she would be guilty of adultery; if not, she was innocent. The legend tells us that they turned yellow, and this is the origin of the yellow rose. In 11th century Sufi poetry, the rose was held up as the symbol of life, a representation of perfection, with its thorns symbolizing the difficulties that must be overcome to achieve that perfection. Rosewater became an agent of purification, and rose amulets were worn to protect against the “evil eye”.

Because of its association with the “infidel”, rose cultivation was discouraged by early Christian churchmen, its use connected to deception and trickery. In Arthurian tales, Merlin is trapped in a tower made from a white rose in the Broceliande forest of France. But once the Christians adopted the rose as the symbol of the Virgin Mary, who herself became known as the rosa mystica, it became prominent in medieval European thinking. The Christian take on the rose’s origin is that it came about from a drop of Christ’s blood falling upon a thorn bush. Some say that the first rosary beads were made with rose hips. In a typical medieval myth, Rosamond, the mistress of King Henry II, is poisoned by his wife, Queen Eleanor Aquitaine, in a concoction sweetened with roses. Rosamund’s grave is now adorned with Rosa Mundi, which bears pink and white flowers. It was a custom to suspend a rose above the table to remind participants that proceedings were confidential (sub rosa), and the need for secrecy made the white rose a Jacobite symbol in Scotland.

To this day, white roses are traditionally worn at weddings in the belief they will bring happiness and security.

Today, folklore and tradition have attached associations to rose colors:

· Red = Love, respect

· Deep pink = Gratitude, appreciation

· Light pink = Admiration, sympathy

· White = Reverence, humility

· Yellow = Joy, gladness

· Orange = Enthusiasm, desire

· Red & yellow blends = Gaiety, joviality

· Pale blended tones = Sociability, friendship

Today there are over 10,000 varieties of roses. Hybridization has severely diluted the fragrant properties of most roses, and for the sweetest scent, rely upon the old fashioned varieties.

Folklore in My Garden: Angelica Herb

Angelica archangelica is arguably the most incredible herb in my garden. Here in eastern CT, it grows rapidly to the majestic height of 6 to 8 feet, and, if planted in semi shade, reseeds prolifically year after year.   It never fails to bring astonished comments from visitors. Care must be taken in thinning it out, because Angelica is biennial, and you don’t want to remove all the first year growth. A member of the parsley family, it was candied and put into fruit cake.

Angelica has been used medicinally for many centuries, and information about those uses abounds on the web.  Gerard the herbalist claimed that it “cureth the bitings of mad dogs and all other venomous beasts.”  It was also put to work against “poisons, agues and all infectious maladies.”   The Chinese variety is known as Dong Quai, and today it’s used widely in alternative medicine.

How did Angelica acquire its interesting name?  There are two different legends. The first says that the angel Gabriel appeared to a monk,  telling  him that Angelica is a cure for, and protection against, the plague. Another version indicates that this plant blossoms annually on the feast day of the Archangel Michael, September 29th. Maybe that happens in Europe, but in CT, my plants have long gone to seed  on that day.  All parts of the plant were believed effective against evil spirits and witchcraft, and was often worn around the neck as an amulet.  Angelica was held in such esteem that it was called ‘The Root of the Holy Ghost.’ In America it was used by the Iroquois and other tribes as Witchcraft Medicine, an infusion of smashed roots was used as wash to remove ghosts from the house.  Angelica is a traditional birthing herb,  used to help bring on a delayed labor and to help expel the placenta. And Harry Potter and his fellow wizards use it in all manner of spells and potions. What higher endorsement can there be?!

It’s a Mystery: The Faerie Hills, by Susan McDuffie

The Faerie Hills

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The year is 1373, the place, the tiny, island of Colonsay, in the windswept Hebrides. A lad named Niall, grandson of the MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, has failed to return after an afternoon outing with his foster brother. Niall was last seen digging around a faerie mound, searching for hidden gold treasure. Deeply worried, his foster father summons his nephew, Muirteach MacPhee, from a neighboring island, to lead the search for Niall. How could anyone disappear so completely in such a small place? As Muirteach investigates, he learns that the majority of Colonsay residents believe Niall was stolen by the faeries; Muirteach is more inclined to believe that this is the work of humans. Whatever the cause, the disappearance stirs up old clan rivalries, which threaten to erupt once more into feuding.

As a historical novel, The Faerie Hills, has much going for it. Author McDuffie infuses her story with plenty of folklore and atmosphere, liberally sprinkling dialog with ancient Scottish vocabulary. While there is a glossary, a pronunciation guide would have been helpful. Muirteach is an intelligent, engaging protagonist, though most other characters are not as well developed. The budding romance between him and Mariota, who is learning to be a healer, provides some lighter moments, and among the more colorful characters are a witch and a grown-up changeling. There Where the book falls short is in the plot itself, which suffers from redundancy and very slow pacing. If you’re looking for a light mystery laced with strong historical and folkloric flavor, however, this fills the bill nicely.

At the Crossroads: folk beliefs and superstitions

Walking between worlds has long been a theme in human beliefs, superstitions, and folklore. Spirits, otherwordly beings such as fairies, demons, and ghosts are often reported at the boundaries and edges of this realm and the next. Burial grounds, certain days of the year (Halloween, All Saints, Midsummer, Midwinter, for example), the boundaries between cultivated and wild land,are just some of the places where the supernatural may be encountered. Death can be viewed as the ultimate boundary.

It was also believed the spirits travel best in straight lines. Burial mounds, stone circles and the like are often connected by “avenues”. Labyrinths, mazes, knots and tangles (Native American “dream catchers”) were thought to confound and impede their comings and goings., which may be why labyrinthine symbols are often discovered at neolithic burial sites. Crossroads, at the center of which one finds oneself on two roads at once, are such places. The symbol of the cross itself may represent this duality.

A crossroads, then, particularly one located outside of town, was a place where one could encounter ghosts and demons. On the Isle of Man, people would sweep the crossing place at midnight to keep it clear of them. Witches were thought to hold their sabbaths there. In some cultures, offerings were left to appease malevolent spirits. The choice of four separate routes was believed to confuse ghosts, keeping them bewildered until the light of day forced their return to the grave. For this reason, suicides and suspected vampires were often buried near these spots, and gallows were sometimes erected there.

“Corpse ways”, or paths along which coffins were carried to the cemetery, were often straight, but sometimes passed over a crossroads. At this point, the bearers would set the coffin down and exchange positions at the corners of the bier, possibly symbolizing the reversal of life by death.

To argue at a crosswords is a sure invitation to misfortune.

If you take a three-legged stool to a crossroads in Scotland on Halloween when the church clock strikes midnight, you will hear the names of those parishioners who will die in the coming year. But if you take an article of clothing belonging to one of the doomed, at throw it in the air while calling out their name, you can save them. Also, if you listen to the wind, you will hear your own fortune.

Magical cures could also be attained at crossroads. To get rid of warts, some folks in England would rub the wart with a few wheat grains that were then left at the crossing. To avoid the ague, close to midnight you could turn yourself around three times, drive a nail into ground at the center, and walk away backwards before the striking of the clock, which would enable you to stay healthy, but the poor unsuspecting soul who first stepped over the nail would come down with the ague.

In the deep South of the United States, crossroads were held to be places where one could sell his soul to the devil in exchange for the granting of a wish, often for musical talent.

Just a few thoughts to ponder next time you’re sitting at a red light at a crossroads.

Fact or Crap: Equestrian Statues and Their Feet

 

Andrew Jackson, who was not killed in battle. Washington, D.C.

During my first awestruck visit to Gettysburg Battlefield National Park many years ago (well, not that many), I clearly recall the tour guide explaining how the position of the horse’s feet on statues of mounted officers indicates how that officer died. For instance, one leg raised means the officer was wounded in battle, while two means that he died. Ever since, I’ve been checking out the legs on every equestrian statue I encounter. Well, turns out, like so many other factoids about history, this particular one is, well, crap. Aww, say it ain’t so. Now David Hiskey, writer at  the entertaining and informative website, Today I Found Out, has posted a well researched article about why it ain’t so. According to Mr. Hiskey, only 30% of such statues in Washington D.C. accurately identify the cause of death of their riders. He goes on to examine the facts in other parts of the world. The “Hoof Code” ain’t so. Who knew?

Today I Found contains volumes of fun info about history, science, and just about everything else you might be curious about. Check it out.