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.

Ditch the Garden Gnome and Get a Hermit

Too bizarre, but, according to Atlas Obscura , very true. You know those little men in the pointy hats that we now refer to as garden gnomes? They now have a history.  You know those classical little “folly” buildings that dot the English garden landscape? Well, it turns out that many of these were not strictly ornamental. Gordon Campbell, a Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, has published The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome , the first book to describe the phenomenon of the ornamental hermit in Georgian England. During the 18th century, it was the fashion among the elite to hire men to live in their gardens, pretending to be a rustic part of the landscape. Rather than write about what he’s discovered, I’ll allow Professor Campbell speak for himself in this video .

As Campbell  explains, whether this method of earning one’s living was irksome or ideal would depend upon the candidate’s own particular outlook on life. “Recruiting a hermit wasn’t always easy. Sometimes they were agricultural workers, and they were dressed in a costume, often in a druid’s costume. There was no agreement on how druids dressed, but in some cases they wore what we would call a dunce’s cap. It’s a most peculiar phenomenon, and understanding it is one of the reasons why I have written this book.” An employment ad referenced in Sir William Gell’s A Tour in the Lakes Made in 1797  states that “the hermit is never to leave the place, or hold conversation with anyone for seven years during which he is neither to wash himself or cleanse himself in any way whatever, but is to let his hair and nails both on hands and feet, grow as long as nature will permit them.” Often symbolic props such as a skull, a book, and an hourglass were used to help convey to the visitor the image of melancholy, a state of mind much admired by the upper class.

The garden hermit fad began way back in ancient Rome and extended to the end of the 1700’s. It’s speculated that the custom of religious persons shutting themselves up for meditation and prayer devolved into a sort of paid profession.

 

article-image(via Wellcome Library)

The garden hermit custom began way back in ancient Rome and extended to the end of the 1700’s. It’s speculated that the custom of religious persons shutting themselves up for meditation and prayer devolved into a sort of paid profession. While the custom died out around 1800, the roots of the plastic garden gnome, which is alive and well today, may very well spring from those of the hermit himself.

article-image
An 18th century hermitage that survives in Manor Gardens Eastbourne, East Essex (photograph by Kevin Gordon)

Monday Morning Poem: The Pumpkin

excerpt from The Pumpkin, by John  Greenleaf Whittier

Ah! on Thanksgiving day, when from East and from West,
From North and from South comes the pilgrim and guest;
When the gray-haired New Englander sees round his board
The old broken links of affection restored;
When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more,
And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before;
What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye,
What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie?

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.

Modern Lit: The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oats

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Accursed is a tricky novel to categorize. Among its various features are elements of the gothic, the paranormal, fantasy, historical fiction, and parody.  The story is set at Princeton University in the year from 1905 to 1906, and reflects a Gilded Age mindset among upper crust characters,of the type that used to be referred to as WASPs. In style it is reminiscent of Edith Wharton in its formality and use of language. The plot, related by a fictional historian who draws from and interprets primary sources such as personal journals, concerns a series of tragic events that plague Princeton’s elite families.  But don’t expect such mundane troubles as health epidemics or train wrecks, for Princeton is about to be invaded by demons, vampires, and snakes.

What the novel is really about, however, is social injustice, and the propensity of the rich and famous to sweep it under the rug. At the turn of the twentieth century, the socialist movement was gaining momentum, and public outrage was about to be aroused, but such major changes as women’s suffrage, gender roles, labor rights, poverty, and racial violence take decades to achieve results.  In The Accursed, readers meet  personages from both sides of the arguments. Woodrow Wilson, then president of the college, represents the old school, interested in maintaining the status quo for the wealthy industrialists and unwilling to take a moral stand even when lynchings occur in the neighboring town. On the opposite side, Upton Sinclair has just published The Jungle, and he is held so in thrall by his socialist ideals that he can’t be bothered to attend to the needs of his wife and infant son. Mark Twain makes sporadic appearances as acerbic commentator.

The Accursed, I believe, is overly long. Some of its passages, however, are truly comical, as when the narrator describes an emergency conference called by President Wilson to talk about “the unspeakable”, and none of them knows what they’re talking about. (Nor does the reader, though it’s not hard to guess.) One of the faculty wives, who refers to herself as Poor Puss, is a professional invalid who relates her view of the Princeton Curse in her diary. But there are long passages dealing with physical and emotional misery that could stand some cuts here and there and still remain effective. This intricate book, the third in Ms. Oates’ gothic series, has been critically acclaimed by professional reviewers. If you want to know if the demons are real, or simply symptomatic of the characters’ collective feelings of guilt, you’ll have to decide for yourself.

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.