“Plants of the Witches”
HECATE, the Grecian goddess of the infernal regions, presided over magic and enchantment, and may fairly be styled the goddess, queen, and patroness of Witches and sorcerers. She was acquainted with the properties of every herb, and imparted this knowledge to her daughters Medea and Circe. To this trio of classical Witches were specially consecrated the following herbs:—The Mandrake, the Deadly Nightshade, the Common Nightshade, the Wolfs-bane, the Pontic Azalea, the Cyclamen, the Cypress, Lavender, Hyssop-leaved Mint, the Poley or Mountain Germander, the Ethiopian Pepper, the Corn Feverfew, the Cardamom, the Musk Mallow, the Oriental Sesame, the rough Smilax, the Lion’s-foot Cudweed (a love philtre), and Maidenhair, a plant particularly dear to Pluto. Medea was specially cognisant of the qualities of the Meadow Saffron, Safflower, Dyer’s Alkanet, the clammy Plantain or Fleawort, the Chrysanthemum, and the brown-berried Juniper. All these plants are, therefore, persistently sought for by Witches, who have not only the power of understanding and appreciating the value of herbs, but know also how to render harmless and innocuous plants baleful and deadly. Thus we find that an Italian Witch, condemned in 1474, was shown to have sown a certain noxious powder amidst the herbage near her dwelling, and the unfortunate cows, stricken at first with the Evil Eye, were at length attacked with a lingering but deadly malady. So, again, in the ‘Tempest,’ Shakspeare tells us that in the magic rings traced on the grass by the dance of the Elves, the herbage is imbued with a bitterness which is noisome to cattle. These rings, which are often to be met with on the Sussex Downs, are there called Hag-tracks, because they are thought to be caused by hags and Witches who dance there at night.
It is recorded that, during the period of the Witch persecutions, whoever found himself unexpectedly under an Elder-tree was involuntarily seized with such horror, that he in all probability fell into an ecstatic or hysterical state. Although not one of the trees dedicated to Hecate and her Witch progeny, the Elder appears to have invariably possessed a certain weird attraction for mischievous Elves and Witches, who are fond of seeking the shelter of its pendent boughs, and are wont to bury their satanic offspring, with certain cabalistic ceremonies, beneath its roots.
These satanic children of Witches are elfish creatures, sometimes butterflies, sometimes bumble bees, sometimes caterpillars or worms. They are called good or bad things—Holds or Holdikens. The Witches injure cattle with them; conjure them into the stem of a tree; and, as we have seen, bury them under the Elder-bushes; then, as the caterpillars eat the foliage of the tree, the hearts of those people are troubled of whom the Witches think.
The ill-omened Cercis Siliquastrum, or Judas Tree, is reputed to be specially haunted by Witches, who experience a grim pleasure in assembling around the tree on which the traitorous disciple is said to have hung himself. Perhaps it is they who have spread the tradition that death overtakes anyone who is unfortunate enough to fall into one of these trees.
The Witches of the Tyrol are reputed to have a great partiality for Alder-trees.
Witches are fond of riding about through the air in the dead of night, and perform long journeys to attend their meetings. Matthison tells us that
“From the deep mine rush wildly out
The troop of Gnomes in hellish rout:
Forth to the Witches’ club they fly;
The Griffins watch as they go by.
The horn of Satan grimly sounds;
On Blocksberg’s flanks strange din resounds,
And Spectres crowd its summit high.”
Their favourite steeds for these midnight excursions are besoms, which are generally to be found ready to hand; but the large Ragwort (which in Ireland is called the Fairies’ Horse) is highly prized for aerial flights. Bulrushes are also employed for locomotive purposes, and other plants are used for equipments, as we read in ‘The Witch of Fife’:—
“The first leet night, quhan the new moon set,
Quhan all was dousse and mirk,
We saddled our naigis wi’ the Moon-fern leif,
And rode fra Kilmerrin Kirk.
Some horses were of the Brume-cane framit,
And some of the greine Bay-tree,
But mine was made of are Humloke schaw,
And a stout stallion was he.”
William of Auverne, who wrote in the thirteenth century, states that when the Witches of his time wished to go to the place of rendezvous, they took a Reed or Cane, and, on making some magical signs, and uttering certain barbarous words, it became transformed into a horse, which carried them thither with extraordinary rapidity.
If the Witches are married, it becomes necessary to administer to their husbands a potion that shall cause them to slumber and keep them asleep during the Witches’ absence in the night. For this purpose the Sleep-Apple, a mossy sort of excrescence on the Wild Rose, and Hawthorn (called in the Edda Sleep-Thorn), are employed, because they will not allow anyone to awake till they are taken away. A very favourite plant made use of by American Witches to produce a similar result, is the Flor de Pesadilla, or Nightmare Flower of Buenos Ayres, a small, dark-green foliaged plant, with lanceolate leaves and clusters of greenish-white flowers, which emit a powerful narcotic smell. From the acrid milky juice pressed from the stem of this plant, Witches obtain a drug which, administered to their victims, keeps them a prey all night to terrible dreams, from which they awake with a dull throbbing sensation in the brain, while a peculiar odour pervades the chamber, causing the air to appear heavy and stifling.
Ben Jonson, in his ‘Masque of Queens,’ introduces therein a conventicle of Witches, who, as part of the business which has brought them together, relate their deeds. One of the hags, who has been gathering that mysterious plant of superstition, the Mandragora, croaks:—
“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.”
Another, whose sinister proceedings have excited the neighbouring watch-dogs, remarks:—
“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.”
And a third, who has procured a supply of the plants needful for the working of the Witches’ spells, says:—
“Yes, I have brought to help our vows
Homed Poppy, Cypress boughs,
The Fig-tree wild that grows on tombs,
And juice that from the Larch-tree comes.”
One of the principal results of the knowledge possessed by Witches of the properties of herbs was the concoction by them of noxious or deadly potions with which they were enabled to work their impious spells. Ovid tells us how Medea, in compounding a poisonous draught, employed Monk’s-hood or Wolfs-bane, the deadly Aconitum, that sprang up from the foam of the savage many-headed Cerberus, the watch-dog of the infernal regions:—
“Medea to dispatch a dang’rous heir
(She knew him) did a poisonous draught prepare,
Drawn from a drug long while reserved in store,
For desp’rate uses, from the Scythian shore,
That from the Echidnæan monster’s jaws
Derived its origin.”
Medea’s sister, the Enchantress Circe, having been neglected by a youth for whom she had conceived a passion, turned him, by means of a herb potion, into a brutal shape, for
“Love refused, converted to disdain.
Then, mixing powerful herbs with magic art,
She changed his form who could not change his heart.”
So intimate was the acquaintance of this celebrated Witch with the subtle properties of all plants, that by the aid of the noxious juices she extracted from them, she was enabled to exercise marvellous powers of enchantment. At her bidding,
“Now strange to tell, the plants sweat drops of blood,
The trees are toss’d from forests where they stood;
Blue serpents o’er the tainted herbage slide,
Pale glaring spectres on the æther ride.”
Circe was assiduous in “simpling on the flow’ry hills,” and her attendants were taught to despise the ordinary occupations of women: they were unburdened by household cares,
“But culled, in canisters, disastrous flowers
And plants from haunted heaths and Fairy bowers,
With brazen sickles reap’d at planetary hours
Each dose the goddess weighed with watchful eye;
So nice her art in impious pharmacy.”
Old Gerarde tells us that Circe made use in her incantations and witchcrafts of the Mullein or Hag-taper (Verbascum Thapsus); and Gower relates of Medea that she employed the Feldwode, which is probably the same plant, its Anglo-Saxon name being Feldwyrt.
“Tho toke she Feldwode and Verveine,
Of herbes ben nought better tweine.”
The composition of philtres, and the working of spells and incantations to induce love, are amongst the most highly prized of witches’ functions, investing them with a power which they delight to wield, and leading to much pecuniary profit.
In Moore’s ‘Light of the Haram,’ the Enchantress Namouna, who was acquainted with all spells and talismans, instructs Nourmahall to gather at midnight—“the hour that scatters spells on herb and flower”—certain blossoms that, when twined into a wreath, should act as a spell to recall her Selim’s love. The flowers gathered, the Enchantress proceeds to weave the magic chaplet, singing the while—
“I know where the wing’d visions dwell
That around the night-bed play;
I know each herb and floweret’s bell,
Where they hide their wings by day;
Then hasten we, maid,
To twine our braid,
To-morrow the dreams and flowers will fade.
“The image of love, that nightly flies
To visit the bashful maid;
Steals from the Jasmine flower, that sighs
Its soul, like her, in the shade.
The dream of a future happier hour,
That alights on misery’s brow,
Springs out of the silvery Almond flower
That blooms on a leafless bough.
“The visions that oft to worldly eyes
The glitter of mines unfold,
Inhabit the mountain herb that dyes
The tooth of the fawn like gold.
The phantom shapes—oh, touch not them!—
That appal the murderer’s sight,
Lurk in the fleshly Mandrake’s stem,
That shrieks when pluck’d at night!
“The dream of the injur’d, patient mind,
That smiles at the wrongs of men,
Is found in the bruis’d and wounded rind
Of the Cinnamon, sweetest then.
Then hasten we, maid,
To twine our braid,
To-morrow the dreams and flowers will fade.”
The chief strength of poor witches lies in the gathering and boiling of herbs. The most esteemed herbs for their purposes are the Betony-root, Henbane, Mandrake, Deadly Nightshade, Origanum, Antirrhinum, female Phlox, Arum, Red and White Celandine, Millefoil, Horned Poppy, Fern, Adder’s-tongue, and ground Ivy. Root of Hemlock, “digged in the dark,” slips of Yew, “slivered in the moon’s eclipse,” Cypress, Wild Fig, Larch, Broom, and Thorn are also associated with Witches and their necromancy. The divining Gall-apple of the Oak, the mystic Mistletoe, the Savin, the Moonwort, the Vervain, and the St. John’s Wort are considered magical, and therefore form part of the Witches’ pharmacopœia—to be produced as occasion may require, and their juices infused in the hell-broths, philtres, potions, and baleful draughts prepared for their enemies. Cuckoo-flowers are gathered in the meadows on the first of May. Chervil and Pennyroyal are used because they both have the effect of making anyone tasting their juices see double. Often many herbs are boiled together—by preference seven or nine. Three kinds of wood make bewitched water boil. Witch-ointments, to be effective, must contain seven herbs.
One of the favourite remedies of Scotch Witches is the Woodbine or Honeysuckle. In effecting their magical cures, they cause their patients to pass a certain number of times (usually nine) through a “girth” or garland of Woodbine, repeating the while certain incantations and invocations. According to Spenser, Witches in the Spring of every year were accustomed to do penance, and purify themselves by bathing in water wherein Origane and Thyme had been placed:—
“Till on a day (that day is every Prime,
When witches wont do penance for their crime)
I chaunst to see her in her proper hew,
Bathing herself in Origane and Thyme.”
In Lower Germany, the Honeysuckle is called Albranke, the Witch-snare. Long running plants and entangled twigs are called Witch-scapes, and the people believe that a Witch hard pursued could escape by their means.
On the Walpurgisnacht, the German Witches are wont to gather Fern to render themselves invisible. As a protection against them, the country people, says Aubrey, “fetch a certain Thorn, and stick it at their house door, believing the Witches can then do them no harm.” On the way to the orgies of this night, the Oldenburg Witches are reputed to eat up all the red buds of the Ash, so that on St. John’s Day the Ash-trees appear denuded of them.
The German Witches are cunning in the use and abuse of roots: for example, they recommend strongly the Meisterwurzel (root of the master), the Bärwurzel (root of the bears), the Eberwurzel (root of the wild boar), and the Hirschwurzel (root of the stag—a name given to the Wild Parsley, to the Black Gentian, and to the Thapsia), as a means of making a horse run for three consecutive days without feeding him.
On St. John’s Eve, the Witches of Russia are busily engaged searching on the mountains for the Gentiana amarella, and on the morning of St. John’s Day, for the Lythrum silicaria, without having found which no one can hope to light upon the former herb. These herbs being hostile to Witches, are sought by them only to be destroyed.
In Franche-Comté they tell of a certain satanic herb, of which the juice gives to Witches the power of riding in the air on a broomstick when they wish to proceed to their nocturnal meeting.
Plants used for Charms and Spells.
In mediæval times the sick poor were accustomed to seek and find the relief and cure of their ailments at the hands of studious, kind-hearted monks, and gentle, sympathetic nuns; but after the Reformation, the practice of the healing art was relegated either to charitable gentlewomen, who deemed it part of their duty to master the mysteries of simpling, or to the Wise Woman of the village, who frequently combined the professions of midwife and simpler, and collected and dispensed medical herbs. Too often, however, the trade in simples and herbs was carried on by needy and ignorant persons—so-called herbalists, quack doctors, and charlatans, or aged crones, desirous of turning to account the superficial knowledge they possessed of the properties of the plants which grew on the neighbouring hill-sides, or were to be found nearer at hand in the fields and hedgerows. As these simplers and herbalists often made serious mistakes in their treatment, and were willing, as a rule, to supply noisome and poisonous herbs to anyone who cared to pay their price, it is not to be wondered at that they were often regarded with dread by their ignorant neighbours, and that eventually they came to be stigmatised as Wizards and Witches.
In the preface to “The Brittish Physician,” a work issued by one Robert Turner, “botanical student,” two hundred years ago, the author, after expatiating on the value of herbs and plants, adds: “but let us not offer sacrifices unto them, and say charms over them, as the Druids of old and other heathens; and as do some cacochymists, Medean hags, and sorcerers nowadays, who, not contented with the lawful use of the creatures, out of some diabolical intention, search after the more magical and occult vertues of herbs and plants to accomplish some wicked ends; and for that very cause, King Hezekiah, fearing lest the herbals of Solomon should come into profane hands, caused them to be burned.” The old herbalist was doubtless acquainted with many of the superstitious practices of the “Medean hags”—the Wise Women, old wives, and Witches of the country—to whom he so scathingly refers. These ill-favoured beldames had a panacea for every disease, a charm or a potion for every disorder, a talisman or amulet against every ill. In addition to herbs, Rowan-tree, salt, enchanted flints, south-running water, and doggrel verses were the means employed for effecting a cure; whilst diseases were supposed to be laid on by forming pictures and images of clay or wax, by placing a dead hand or mutilated member in the house of the intended victim, or by throwing enchanted articles at his door. In reality, however, the mischief was done by means of poisonous herbs or deadly potions, cunningly prepared by the Witch and her confederates.
One of the most remarkable of the many superstitions inculcated by these ignorant and designing Witches and quacks, was the notion that diseases could be transferred from human beings to trees. Gilbert White has recorded that at Selborne there stood, in his time, a row of Pollard-Ashes which, when young and flexible, had been severed and held open by wedges, while ruptured children, stripped naked, were pushed through the apertures, under a belief that their infirmity would be thereby cured. Children were also passed through cleft trees, to cast out all witchcraft, or to neutralise its baleful effects, and to protect them from the influence of Witches; and sometimes they were passed through the branches of a Maple, in order that they might be long-lived. Sick sheep were made to go through the cleft of a young Oak, with a view of transferring their diseases to the spirit of the tree. People afflicted with ague were directed to repair to the Cross Oaks which grew at the junctions of cross-roads, for the purpose of transferring to them their malady. Aguish patients were ordered to proceed without speaking or crossing water, to a lofty Willow, to make a gash in it, breathe three times into the crevice, close it quickly, and hasten away without looking back: if they did this correctly, the ague was warranted to leave them. A twisted neck or cuts in the body were thought to be cured by twisting a Willow round the affected part. In the West of England, peasants suffering from blackhead were bidden to crawl under an arched Bramble, and if they had the toothache, the prescribed remedy was for them to bite the first Fern that appeared in Spring. In other parts of the country toothache was cured by sticking into the bark of a young tree the decayed tooth after it had been drawn. If a child did not willingly learn to walk, the Wise Woman of the village would direct its troubled mother to make it creep through the long withes of the Blackberry-bush, which were grown down to the earth, and had taken fresh root therein. Sufferers from gout were relieved by the Witch transferring the disorder to some old Pine-tree, or rather to the genius inhabiting it. Many magical arts attended the transference of the disease to the spirit of the vicarious tree, and the operation was generally accompanied by the recital of some formula. Amongst the forms of adjuration was the following commencement: “Twig, I bind thee; fever, now leave me!” A sufferer from cramp was ordered to stretch himself on a Plum-tree, and say, “Climbing-plant, stand! Plum-tree, waver.”
If we seek for the origin of this superstitious notion of transferring diseases to trees, we shall find a clue in the works of Prof. Mannhardt, who recounts the names of demons which in Germany are identified with nearly all the maladies of plants, and particularly with those of Wheat and vegetables. The superstitious country people, struck with the affinity which exists between the vegetable world and the animal world, came, in course of time, to think that the same demon caused the disease of plants and that of man; and therefore they conceived that, in order to safeguard mankind, it was only necessary to confine the demon in the plant. Examples of this belief are still to be found in our own country, and similar superstitious observances are common on the Continent. The German peasant creeps through an Oak cleft to cure hernia and certain other disorders; and the Russian moujik splits an Ilex in order to perform a similar curative operation. De Gubernatis tells us that the Venetian peasant, when fever-stricken, repairs to a tree, binds up the trunk, and says to it thrice, without taking breath, “I place thee here, I leave thee here, and I shall now depart.” Thereupon the fever leaves the patient; but if the tree be a fruit tree, it will from that time cease to yield fruit. In the Netherlands, a countryman who is suffering from the ague will go early in the morning to an old Willow-tree, tie three knots in a branch, and say: “Good morning, old one! I give thee the cold; good morning, old one.” This done, he will turn round quickly, and run off as fast as he can, without looking behind him.
But to revert to the superstitious practices of English Witches, Wise Women, and midwives. One of their prescriptions for the ague was as follows:—A piece of the nail of each of the patient’s fingers and toes, and a bit of hair from the nape of the neck, being cut whilst the patient was asleep, the whole were wrapped up in paper, and the ague which they represented was put into a hole in an Aspen tree, and left there, when by degrees the ague would quit the patient’s body. A very old superstition existed that diseases could be got rid of by burying them: and, indeed, Ratherius relates that, so early as the tenth century, a case of epilepsy was cured by means of a buried Peach-blossom; it is not surprising, therefore, that English Witches should have professed themselves able to cure certain disorders in this fashion; and accordingly we find that diseases and the means of their cure were ordered by them to be buried in the earth and in ants’ nests.
One of the Witches’ most reliable sources of obtaining money from their dupes was the concoction of love-philtres for despondent swains and love-sick maidens. In the composition of these potions, the juices of various plants and herbs were utilised; but these will be found adverted to in the chapter on Magical Plants. Fresh Orchis was employed by these cunning and unscrupulous simplers, to beget pure love; and dried Orchis to check illicit love. Cyclamen was one of the herbs prescribed by aged crones for a love potion, and by midwives it was esteemed a most precious and invaluable herb; but an expectant mother was cautioned to avoid and dread its presence. If, acting on the advice of the Wise Woman, she ate Quince- and Coriander-seed, her child, it was promised, would assuredly be ingenious and witty; but, on the contrary, should she chance to partake too bountifully of Onions, Beans, or similar vaporous vegetable food, she was warned that her offspring would be a fool, and possibly even a lunatic. Mothers were also sagely cautioned that to preserve an infant from evil, it was necessary to feed it with Ash-sap directly it was born; and they were admonished that it should never be weaned while the trees were in blossom, or it would have grey hair.
As relics of the charms and prescriptions of the old Witches, countless superstitions connected with plants are to be found at the present day rife in all parts of the country. Of these the following are perhaps the principal:—For the cure of diseases: Blue Cornflowers gathered on Corpus Christi Sunday stop nose-bleeding if they are held in the hand till they are warm. Club Moss is considered good for all diseases of the eyes, and Euphrasy and Rue for dimness of sight. Cork has the power of keeping off the cramp, and so have Horse-chesnuts if carried in the pocket. Elder-sticks in the pocket of a horseman when riding prevent galling; and the same, with three, five, or seven knots, if carried in the pocket will ward off rheumatism. A Potato (stolen, if possible) or a piece of Rowan-wood in the trousers pocket will also cure rheumatism. The roots of Pellitory of Spain and Tarragon, held between the teeth, cure the toothache, and so will splinters of an Oak struck by lightning. Hellebore, Betony, Honesty, and Rue are antidotes against madness. The root of a male Peony, dried and tied to the neck, cures epilepsy and relieves nightmare. Castoreum, Musk, Rue-seed, and Agnus Castus-seed are likewise all remedies for nightmare. Chelidonium placed under the bare feet will cure jaundice. A twig of Myrtle carried about the person is efficacious in cases of tumour in the groin. Green Wormwood placed in the shoes will relieve pains in the stomach of the wearer. Spurge and Laurel-leaves, if broken off upwards, will cause vomiting; if downwards, purging. Plantain laid under the feet removes weariness; and with Mugwort worn beneath the soles of his feet a man may walk forty miles without tiring. Agnus Castus, if carried in the hand, will prevent weariness; and when placed in a bed preserves chastity. Henbane, laid between the sheets, also preserves chastity, and will besides kill fleas. Necklaces of Peony-root, worn by children, prevent convulsions. The excrescence found in Rose-bushes, known as “Robin Redbreast’s Cushion,” when hung round children’s necks, will cure whooping-cough. Pansy-leaves, placed in the shoe, or Sage-leaves eaten, will cure ague. The roots of white Briony, bruised and applied to any place, when the bones are broken, help to draw them forth, as also splinters, arrow-heads, and thorns in the flesh. The root of an Iris, if it grow upwards, will attract all thorns from the flesh; if, on the contrary, it inclines downwards, it will cure wounds. A piece of Oak, rubbed in silence on the body, on St. John’s Day, before the sun rises, heals all open wounds. An Apple is deemed potent against warts, and so is a green Elder-stick, rubbed over them, and then buried in muck, to rot. Sometimes the Elder-stick has a notch cut in it for each wart; it is then rubbed over the warts, and finally burned. Warts are also cured by pricking them with a Gooseberry-thorn passed through a wedding-ring; and by rubbing them with a Bean-shell, which is afterwards secretly taken under an Ash-tree by the operator, who then repeats the words—
“As this Bean-shell rots away,
So my warts shall soon decay.”
Catmint will cause those of the most gentle and mild dispositions to become fierce and quarrelsome. Crocus-flowers will produce laughter and great joy. Rosemary, worn about the body, strengthens the memory. He who sows seed should be careful not to lay it on a table, otherwise it will not grow. In sowing peas, take some of them in your mouth before the sun goes down, keep them there in silence while you are sowing the rest, and this will preserve them from sparrows. A piece of wood out of a coffin that has been dug up, when laid in a Cabbage-bed, will defend it from caterpillars. A bunch of wild Thyme and Origanum, laid by the milk in a dairy, prevents its being spoiled by thunder: Sunflowers are also held to be a protection against thunder. A bunch of Nettles laid in the barrel, in brewing, answers the same purpose. Water Pepper, put under the saddle of a tired horse, will refresh him and cause him to travel well again. Basil, if allowed to rot under an earthen jar, will become changed into scorpions, and the frequent smelling of this herb is apt to generate certain animals like scorpions in the brain. The Oak being a prophetic tree, a fly in the gall-nut is held to foretell war; a maggot, dearth; a spider, pestilence.
Probably the most frequent visitors to the Witch’s cottage were vain and silly maidens, desirous either of procuring some potion which should enhance their rustic charms, or of learning from the lips of the Witch the mysteries of the future. To such credulous applicants the beldame would impart the precious secrets, that Lilies of the Valley, gathered before sunrise, and rubbed over the face, would take away freckles; and that Wild Tansy, soaked in butter-milk for nine days, and then applied as a wash to the face, would cause the user to look handsome. For those who were anxious to consult her as to their love affairs, or desired to test her powers of divination, the Witch had an abundant stock of charms and amulets, and was prepared with mystic and unerring spells. She would take a root of the Bracken-fern, and, cutting its stem very low down, would show to the inquiring maiden the initial letter of her future husband’s name. She knew where to procure two-leaved and four-leaved Clover, and even-leaved Ash, by the aid of which lovers would be forthcoming before the day was over. She could instruct a lass in the mystic rite of Hemp-sowing in the churchyard at midnight on St. Valentine’s Eve. She knew and would reveal where Yarrow was to be found growing on a dead man’s grave, and would teach country wenches the charmed verse to be repeated when the magic plant should be placed beneath their pillow. She could superintend the construction of “The Witches’ Chain” by three young women, and could provide the necessary Holly, Juniper, and Mistletoe-berries, with an Acorn for the end of each link; and she would instruct them how to wind this mystic chain around a long thin log of wood, which was to be placed on the fire, accompanied by many magical rites (the secret of which she would divulge), and then burnt, with the promised result that just as the last Acorn was consumed, each of the three maidens should see her future husband walk across the room, or if she were doomed to celibacy, then a coffin or some misshapen form.
The Witch was cunning in the composition of draughts which should procure dreams, and the secret of many of these potions is still known and treasured. Thus: fresh Mistletoe-berries (not exceeding nine in number), steeped in a liquid composed of equal proportions of wine, beer, vinegar, and honey, taken as pills on an empty stomach before going to bed, will cause dreams of your future destiny (providing you retire to rest before twelve) either on Christmas-eve or on the first and third of a new moon. Similar dreams may be procured by making a nosegay of various-coloured flowers, one of a sort, a sprig of Rue, and some Yarrow off a grave; these must be sprinkled with a few drops of the oil of Amber, applied with the left hand, and bound round the head under the night-cap, when retiring to bed, which must be supplied with clean linen. A prophetic dream is to be procured through the medium of what is known as “Magic Laurel,” by carrying out the following formula:—Rise between three and four o’clock in the morning of your birthday, with cautious secresy, so as to be observed by no one, and pluck a sprig of Laurel; convey it to your chamber, and hold it over some lighted brimstone for five minutes, which you must carefully note by a watch or dial; wrap it in a white linen cloth or napkin, together with your own name written on paper, and that of your lover (or if there is more than one, write all the names down), write also the day of the week, the date of the year, and the age of the moon; then haste and bury it in the ground, where you are sure it will not be disturbed for three days and three nights; then take it up, and place the parcel under your pillow for three nights, and your dreams will be truly prophetic as to your destiny. A dream of fate is to be procured on the third day of the months between September and March by any odd number of young women not exceeding nine, if each string nine Acorns on a separate string (or as many Acorns as there are young women), wrap them round a long stick of wood, and place it in the fire, precisely at midnight. The maidens, keeping perfect silence, must then sit round the fire till all the Acorns are consumed, then take out the ashes, and retire to bed directly, repeating—
“May love and marriage be the theme,
To visit me in this night’s dream;
Gentle Venus, be my friend,
The image of my lover send;
Let me see his form and face,
And his occupation trace;
By a symbol or a sign,
Cupid, forward my design.”
Plants Antagonistic to Witchcraft.
The Rowan, Mountain Ash, or Care-tree has a great repute among country folk in the cure of ills arising from supernatural as well as natural causes. It is dreaded and shunned by evil spirits; it renders null the spells of Witches and sorcerers, and has many other marvellous properties. A piece of Rowan wood carried in the pocket of a peasant acts as a charm against ill-wishes, and bunches of Care suspended over the cow’s stall and wreathed around her horns will guard her from the effects of the Evil Eye and keep, her in health, more especially if her master does not forget to repeat regularly the pious prayer—
“From Witches and Wizards, and long-tailed Buzzards,
And creeping things that run in hedge-bottoms,
Good Lord, deliver us!”
The Ash, in common with the Rowan-tree, possesses the property of resisting the attacks of Witches, Elves, and other imps of darkness; on this account Ash-sap is administered to newly-born children, as without some such precaution the Fairies or Witches might change the child, or even steal it.
“Rowan, Ash, and red thread
Keep the Devils frae their speed.”
The Hazel, according to German tradition, is inimical to Witches and enchanters. North says that by means of Hazel-rods Witches can be compelled to restore to animals and plants the fecundity of which by their malign influence they had previously deprived them.
Elder, gathered on the last day of April, and affixed to the doors and windows of the house, disappoints designing Witches and protects the inhabitants from their diabolical spells.
Mistletoe, as a distinctly sacred plant, is considered a talisman against witchcraft. A small sprig of this mystic plant worn round the neck is reputed to possess the power of repelling Witches, always provided that the bough from which it was cut has not been allowed to touch the earth after being gathered. Plucked with certain ceremonies on the Eve of St. John, and hung up in windows, it is considered an infallible protection against Witches, evil spirits, and phantoms, as well as against storms and thunder.
Cyclamen would appear to be considered a preservative from the assaults of witchcraft and evil spirits, if we may judge from the following couplet:—
“St. John’s Wort and fresh Cyclamen she in her chamber kept,
From the power of evil angels to guard him while he slept.”
Vervain and St. John’s Wort, carried about the person, will prove a sure preservation against the wiles of Satan and the machinations and sorcery of Witches.
“Gin you would be leman of mine,
Lay aside the St. John’s Wort and the Vervain.”
Dill has also the reputation of counteracting the enchantments of Witches and sorcerers—
“The Verdain and the Dill
That hindreth Witches of their will.”
St. John’s Wort (Hypericum), the Fuga Dæmonum of the old writers, is a plant detested by Witches, who are scared when in its neighbourhood.
“St. John’s Wort, scaring from the midnight heath
The Witch and Goblin with its spicy breath.”
Herb Paris, according to Matthiolus, takes away all evil done by witchcraft; Pimpernel is potent to prevent it; and Angelica worn round the neck will defeat the malignant designs of Witches, who moreover, it is satisfactory to know, detest the Bracken Fern, because if its stem be cut, there will be found therein the monogram of Christ. Flowers of a yellow or greenish hue, growing in hedgerows, are also repugnant to them.
In the Tyrol there exists a belief that by binding Rue, Broom, Maidenhair, Agrimony, and ground Ivy, into one bundle, the bearer of the same is enabled to see and know Witches.