Folklore in My Garden: St. John’s Wort

imageEach year on Midsummer’s Eve, when summer begins here in New England, I stroll around my garden searching for the little yellow blooms of St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum). I’ve never planted any. Around here it grows as a wildflower, and a few volunteers show up each year, in various places, sometimes the same and sometimes not. From the time of the ancient Greeks, it was considered to have magical powers to ward off evil and protect against diseases, and since early Christian times, the feast of St. John the Baptist, June 24,  has been considered the best day on which to pick the plant for such uses. Some sources have said the red spots appear on the leaves on August 29, said to be the anniversary of his beheading.

Other ideas stem from folk beliefs. The bright yellow blossom was associated with the sun, which made St. John’s Wort popular for divination and fortune telling. In Germany, for example, young girls dreaming about marriage in the coming year would pick a sprig in the evening; if it had not wilted by morning, her chances were good. The red juice from the crushed leaves was called Witch’s Blood, and made effective love potions. A poem translated from the German:

“The young maid stole through the cottage door,
And blushed as she sought the plant of power.
‘Thou silver glow-worm, oh! lend me thy light,
I must gather the mystic St. John’s Wort to-night;
The wonderful herb whose leaf will decide
If the coming year shall see me a bride.”

Similarly, it could foretell who in a family would die the soonest. Bringing the flowers indoors on Midsummer Eve would protect from the evil eye, ward off witches, promote good fortune, and prevent fires and lightning strikes.  (Guess I’d better bring some in tonight!) Placing a bunch beneath a pillow could banish nightmares, and in one case it rid a house of poltergeist activity! From an English poem:

“St. John’s wort doth charm all the witches away.
If gathered at midnight on the saint’s holy day.
And devils and witches have no power to harm
Those that do gather the plant for a charm:
Rub the lintels and post with that red juicy flower
No thunder nor tempest will then have the power
To hurt or to hinder your houses: and bind
Round your neck a charm of a similar kind.”

Be sure not to step on this plant, or a Faerie Horse just may steal you away. But perhaps you can avoid that fate by wearing a few leaves and flowers as a necklace.

Medicinally, noted herbalists used St. John’s Wort in ointments to heal deep wounds, bruises, and venomous animal bites. In infusions, it could dissolve stones in the urinary tract or kidneys, and  cure fevers, jaundice, gout, and rheumatism. It was also good for bed sores, lockjaw, and insomnia. Native Americans made use of St. John’s Wort against diarrhea, skin injuries, bleeding, and snake bites. In Europe, it has been used for centuries to alleviate nervous disorders, hysteria,  and insanity, and very recently, St. John’s Wort has been newly discovered as  a modern treatment for depression and virus infection. Today, there are many commercial preparations available as standard oils and liquid or powdered extracts. Now that researchers are taking this herb seriously for medicinal purposes, who knows what knew applications might be discovered?

 

 

 

 

 

Fiber Folklore – Baa, baa, Black Sheep

Baa, baa, black sheep,

Have you any wool?

Yes marry, have I,

Three bags full;

One for my master,

One for my dame,

But none for the little boy

Who cries in the lane.

This nursery rhyme probably dates to the Middle Ages, when England was the major player in the international wool trade. A tax had been placed upon wool, with 1/3 going to the”master” (local lord), 1/3 to the “dame” (the church), and the rest to the “little boy” in the lane (local farmer). In recent years it has become a subject of controversy, with early childhood teachers converted black sheep to rainbow sheep to avoid any hint of racism.

The color of the sheep in the rhyme must also be of some significance. Black wool is difficult to dye and would therefore seem to have little use in making textiles. However many shepherds prized black fleece and kept one dark sheep in a flock of white ones. When the fiber was carded for spinning a little of the black was mixed in with the white to produce a light-grey wool. The cloth made from ‘grey’ wool was believed to be warmer and more weather proof than that made from only white fleece. Unlike the pure black wool it could be easily dyed.

On the other hand, a single black ram could contaminate the whiteness of a flock’s fleece. This is probably the source of the unflattering phrase, “black sheep of the family.” The first record in print is from Charles Macklin’s The man of the world, a comedy, 1786:

“O, ye villain! you – you – you are a black sheep; and I’ll mark you.”

I’m not sure that a breed of sheep with pure black wool actually exists.  In days of yore, a “black” sheep was any sheep that wasn’t white. Most  dark fleeces have at least a tinge of noticeable brown or gray in their fleece. If anyone knows of a pure black, I’d like to see a picture and know the breed.

It’s a Mystery: After I’m Gone, by Laura Lippman

After I'm GoneAfter I’m Gone by Laura Lippman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After I’m Gone is Laura Lippman’s 20th novel, and her experience and finely developed skills sparkle in this seamless family saga that at its heart is a murder mystery. Set in Baltimore, the book opens in the 1960s with the whirlwind courtship of Felix Brewer and Bambi Gottschalk. Felix builds a shady but lucrative business involving strip clubs gambling, and while he loves Bambi and their three daughters, he suffers no guilt over his womanizing on the side. Bambi loves Felix, and is willing to live with his infidelities in order to enjoy the lavish life that he provides for her, which includes hobnobbing with Baltimore’s elite. The pivot point in their story occurs about a third of the way into the novel, when Felix goes on the lam to avoid a prison sentence. The rest of the book focuses on the lives of the five women he left in his wake – wife, daughters, and mistress, an exotic dancer with the professional name Julia Romeo. While the whereabouts of Felix are unknown, the real mystery emerges ten years later, when Julie vanishes, widely assumed to have joined her lover at his hideout. Until, that is, her body is discovered in Leakin Park in 2001.

Talented author Lippman has devised some winning characters, all imperfect, all too human, but all well developed and interesting. She is able to even-handedly make both wife and mistress strong and sympathetic, and even Felix and his complicit friends are not without their redeeming features. She knows the highs, lows, and in-betweens of relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings and friends. And she can spin out the intricacies of a murder investigation with nary a red herring.

Beautifully composed, After I’m Gone stands out head and shoulders  in this very crowded genre.

View all my reviews

More on Connecticut’s Witch Trials

imageFrom Coastal Connecticut magazine, an article dealing with witch scares in 17th century Connecticut. The author, Tom Sobolesky, interviewed me by phone last Friday, in connection with our upcoming Witches and Tombstones tours at Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum in Wethersfield. As per usual, he didn’t get everything quite right, but here is his take on what actually happened.

Fear of Witches in Early Connecticut

Decades before Salem’s witch panic, the fear of witches (wiccaphobia) in early Connecticut was pervasive and contagious. In fact, the state executed more women accused of witchcraft than anyplace else in the colonies. “One of the hardest things for people to understand today,” Connecticut’s State Historian, Walter Woodward, explained to the Litchfield County Times in 2001, “is how ordinary people feared their neighbors enough to kill them—to really believe that the grumpy old lady across the street worked through the devil. The world was a different place then. It was a very permeable time when people believed in the occult.”

In this boiling atmosphere, nine women and two men were marched to the gallows in Connecticut. Two married couples, including John and Joan Carrington of Wethersfield, were among those to meet the hangman. Documentation of their case is thin, but what exists says that John was arrested and fined for bartering a gun with a Native American. Their indictment is similar to many of the time: “thou hast entertained familiarity with Satan . . .”

They were hung in Hartford in 1651.

Before the Carringtons, Mary Johnson of Wethersfield was whipped for theft and, in 1648, confessed to murdering a child. Her indictment included licentiousness, in addition to familiarity with Satan. While in prison, Johnson had a baby boy. Since she didn’t meet the hangman’s noose until 1650, some historians speculate that the baby’s father was the jailer’s son. Linda Pagliuco, a guide at the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum in Wethersfield, who has done a lot of research on the era, conveyed this theory. That son of the head jailer consented to raise the child, and this was agreed to by the court.

The topic of the Wethersfield witches will be covered in a Witches and Tombstones Tour hosted by Webb-Deane-Stevens on October 24 & 25. Reservations are advised.

In that era of fear, neighbors didn’t trust neighbors and looked down on you even if you were struggling. “People were not charitable,” says Pagliuco. “They didn’t like for their neighbor to need charitable assistance.” Many of the women accused were poor. If you were suspected of witchcraft, those neighbors could comprise the jury. If the court’s verdict didn’t call for punishment, the neighbors themselves might inflict it.

The colonial governor, John Winthrop Jr., also believed in witchcraft, but was more skeptical of the specific allegations and thought that the lax evidentiary court standards of that time were insufficient. A newly released book, Prospero’s America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676, by Walter Woodward, traces how Connecticut’s settlement was influenced by witchcraft, religion, local tribes and more.

“Winthrop was a man ahead of his time,” Pagliuco says. “He dabbled in magic and alchemy,” – things that would make women suspicious. But because he was from a prominent family, he would not be targeted.

The colonists’ attitudes about religion and witchcraft are in sharp contrast to the positions attributed to the present day practice of Wicca. According to wicca.com, “Satan, or the devil, has absolutely no place in Wicca or witchcraft,” and it, “does not engage itself in criticizing the beliefs of other people…Witches do object to religions that attempt to suppress the religious beliefs of others.”

Pagliuco likens today’s bullying to the witch paranoia, saying people are called names or harassed for being perceived as different, just as women were back then. “If you become unpopular, something bad could happen to you. If you’re different and make someone mad,” they may come after you. “If you look at the mechanisms, it’s similar but with a different vocabulary.”

Resources for Further Study

A full list of those accused of witchcraft in colonial Connecticut (and their verdicts) is contained in a report by the Office of Legislative Research, 2006-R-0718. Other sources to research the history of the state’s witchcraft hysteria can be found on the state library website.

A full transcript of the 2008 Judiciary Committee hearing on Senate Joint Resolution No. 26 can be found within this link – (note: you have to scroll about ⅔ of the way through to get to the portion on witchcraft). Copies of supporting documents that were submitted to the committee, including written requests for forgiveness from several present day descendants, can be found here. Included are charts tracing the lineage of two of the descendants, and a brief by UConn history professor, Lawrence Goodheart.

Suggested books on this topic include, Witchcraft Trials of Connecticut, by R. G. Tomlinson, and The Devil on the Shape of a Woman, by Carol F. Karlsen

History News: 3000 Skeletons Unearthed Near Liverpool St. Station

Discovery News reports that construction crews working at the site of a new London Tube station have uncovered thousands of skeletons and more than 10,000 artifacts during excavations. The building site is located within the precincts of the infamous Bedlam “Madhouse”,  where the city’s first municipal cemetery was located and used from the 1560’s to 1738. Among the interments are Great Plague victims, and archaeologists are interested in  studying the bones to learn more about the evolution of the strain that repeatedly struck London. It is expected to take at least a month to complete the disinterments, and plans are to rebury the bones at a cemetery outside city. It is anticipated that a Roman road will also be brought to light. The results of this investigation, once analyzed, promise to provide a fascinating look at life in one of London’s oldest neighborhoods.

Christmas Traditions: Wassailing

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail, too,
And God bless you, and send you
A Happy New Year,
And God send you a Happy New Year.

Here we come a-what? Wassailing is the practice of going door-to-door singing Christmas carols until paid to go away and leave the occupants in peace. (The term also refers to the practice of singing to trees in apple orchards in cider-producing regions of England.) The word derives from the Anglo Saxon, pre-1066 toast, wæs þu hæl, “be thou hale” — i.e., “be in good health”, though it was not associated with Christianity at that time.
The practice as we know it has its roots in the middle ages, as an exchange between the lord of the manor and his peasants as a form of recipient initiated charitable giving, to be distinguished from This point is made in the song Here We Come A-Wassailing, when the wassailers inform the lord of the house that “we are not daily beggars that beg from door to door but we are friendly neighbors whom you have seen before.” The Lord would then give food and drink to the peasants in exchange for their blessing and goodwill, singing, “Love and joy come to you, And to you your wassail too; And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year”.

Wassail bowls, generally in the shape of goblets, have been preserved. The Worshipful Company of Grocers made very elaborate one in the seventeenth century, decorated with silver. It is so large that is must have passed around as a “loving cup” so that many members of the guild could drink from it. Then they wondered why everyone caught colds! Anyway, the drink was either punch, mulled wine or spicy ale. The larger, elaborate bowl below is from Wales.

 

If you’d like to whip up a batch of wassail for your own celebrations, Old Farmer’s Almanac has a good recipe here .

Happy New Year! Waes pu hael!

 

revised 12/30/14

History News: “Demon Traps” and King James I

How interesting!

A number of 17th century demon traps, the so-called “witchmarks” intended to keep evil spirits away from a member of royalty, have been discovered at Knole House, Sevenoaks, Kent.

Knole House – now located in a medieval deer-park – originally was an Archbishop’s palace, the house passed through royal hands to the Sackville family – Knole’s inhabitants from 1603 to today.

The marks were found under the floorboards and surrounding the fireplace of a room which was built for King James I, in anticipation of his planned visit to Sevenoaks.

The etchings, also known as apotropaic marks, are described to be interlocking, chequered and v-shaped.

They have been hidden for centuries and are believed to be linked to the  plot in which some Catholics, most famously Guy Fawkes, plotted to blow up James I, the first of the Stuart kings of England.

 

“A few months before the marks were engraved, the infamous plot caused mass hysteria to sweep across the county. Accusations of demonic forces and witches at work were rife.

The etchings, also known as apotropaic marks, are described to be interlocking, chequered and v-shaped.

They were thought to form a ‘demon trap’, warding off demonic possessions and have been dated back to 1606 by archaeologists who used tree ring dating methods,” according to Kent Online.

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Experts from the National Trust believe the markings were carved by craftsmen working for the owner of Knole house, Thomas Sackville, in anticipation of a visit from the King – a visit he never made.

These marks illustrate how fear governed the everyday lives of people living through the tumultuous years of the early 17th century.

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“King James I had a keen interest in witchcraft and passed a witchcraft law, making it an offence punishable by death and even wrote a book on the topic entitled Daemonologie,” said James Wright, an archaeologist at the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA).“These marks illustrate how fear governed the everyday lives of people living through the tumultuous years of the early 17th century.

“To have precisely dated these apotropaic marks so closely to the time of the Gunpowder Plot, with the anticipated visit from the King, makes this a rare if not unique discovery.

“Using archaeology to better understand the latent fears of the common man that were heightened by the Plot is extremely exciting and adds huge significance to our research about Knole and what was happening at that time.”

 

Excerpts from MessageToEagle.com