Flowers, Myth and Magic

 

Happy Midsummer (or Midwinter)  Solstice!  There are a whole bunch of cool flowers said to have magical properties which are associated with the Solstice.  I thought it might be fun to review a few.  First let’s take a look at WILD PANSY.

Queen Elizabeth I may have avoided a husband and maintained a life of celibacy as a result of  this little flower.

According to Shakespeare,  in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”,  Cupid once aimed his arrow at  “A fair vestal, throned by the West”  (meaning a western virgin queen). Cupid “loosed his love-shaft smartly from his bow, as it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts.” The arrow, however, never made it to Cupid’s intended destination.

This “vestal” (or vestal virgin) was England’s reigning monarch, Elizabeth I.  Cupid’s arrow missed the Queen and landed instead upon a flower.  The flower  had previously been “milk white in color”, but now turned purple with the  wound from the arrow.

Because of this incident, Queen Bess was destined to never fall in love. Shakespeare says she “passed on in maiden meditation, fancy-free” forever known as The Virgin Queen. The flower, however, absorbed all the love potion from Cupid’s arrow.  On Midsummer night when Oberon the fairy king and his servant Puck decide to make mischief with star-crossed lovers, they of course use this flower.

‘The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid 
Will make or man or woman madly dote 
Upon the next live creature that it sees.”

The first creature Titania saw just happened to be a donkey 🙂

The flower ‘s technical name is viola tricolor. It has several fun nicknames, including heartsease, heart’s delight, tickle-my-fancy, Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me, come-and-cuddle-me, and Oberon’s favorite, love-in-idleness. 

In addition to being a love potion, wild pansy has been used in folk medicine to treat epilepsy, asthma, skin diseases, and eczema. It is a natural expectorant and is helpful with respiratory problems such as bronchitis, asthma, and the common cold.

HAWTHORN

Thomas the Rhymer was a 13th century  Scottish mystic and poet. He claimed he once met the Queen of Elphame (Elf’s Home) beneath a hawthorn tree.

“Her skirt was o the grass-green silk, 
Her mantle o the velvet fyne, 
At ilka tett of her horse’s mane 
Hang fifty silver bells and nine.” 

The Elphame Queen led him into the fairy Underworld for what Thomas thought was a brief visit. However, upon returning to the human world, he discovered he had been gone for seven years.

 “When seven years were come and gane,
The sun blink’d fair on pool and stream;
And Thomas lay on Huntlie bank,
Like one awaken’d from a dream.”

Themes of people being taken into the Underworld by fairy folk is common in Celtic mythology. The hawthorn tree is one of the most likely places where this could happen,  and Midsummer is one of the most likely days, so beware of standing near hawthorn trees today, unless you are planning a visit to fairyland!

The hawthorn is technically called Crataegus and is also known as thornapple, May-tree, whitethorn, and hawberry. It bears edible fruit, similar to small apples, which can be used in jellies or salads.

The fruit is quite healthy, containing phytochemicals such as tannis and flavinoids, valuable in purging toxins from the body.  In modern medicine, a salve made from hawthorn trees has been effective in the treatment of cardiovascular disease. (Further proving that the fairies give us some goodies along with their magical portals!)

FOXGLOVE

This lovely plant, which reaches full bloom at Midsummer is a favorite among fairy folk. Shaped like bells, it is said that the fairies designed them for foxes. One story tells of foxes wearing them around their necks. The ringing bells cast a spell to protect the animals from hunters.  The spots inside are made when fairies touch the flowers.

Another story tells of a fairy giving them to a fox to put on his toes so he could sneak into the chicken house and silently rob it without being caught.

The technical name for foxglove is Digitalis (derived from digit, meaning finger). They are also called witches’ glovefolks’ glove, (folk meaning fairy) and fey-glew, meaning ‘fairy music’.  (Listen closely to hear the bells!)

Foxglove was once thought to be effective in  epileptic seizures, but this idea has since has been debunked as quackery. Some historians believe that Vincent Van Gogh suffered from digoxin toxicity from the foxglove that was used at the time to treat his epilepsy.

It has been speculated that Van Gogh’s frequent use of the color yellow in his painting (art historians call it his “yellow period”)  may have been due to the disease. Victims often see the world in a yellow green tint, or surrounded by yellow spots. Cutting off his own ear may have been caused by grief and complications from the disease as well.

Also, Van Gogh painted a portrait of his doctor, Paul Gachet, holding a strand of purple foxglove, so the flower must have had significance.

At any rate, the plant is highly toxic and should never be eaten! Foxglove are also called Dead Man’s Bells. Consider yourself warned.

Have a safe, happy and healthy solstice!

 

 

 

 

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All About Leprechauns!

 

St. Patrick’s Day would not be complete without leprechauns! If you attend a parade or celebration today, you may see a few of them — those funny looking guys with tall green top hats and scraggly orange beards.

The image of the leprechaun has been used to advertise everything from lottery tickets to Lucky Charms. They are the mascot of the Boston Celtics and the face of Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish.

They have been portrayed as dishonest, aggressive and annoying little creatures. Yet I can’t help but think leprechauns have been unfairly stereotyped (much like their human Irish counterparts) as brawlers, drunkards and all-around trouble makers.

Real leprechauns have a much more sophisticated history.

In Irish mythology, leprechauns are part of a race called the Aos Sidhe (pronounced aes-shee). These are supernatural tribes of faeries that include (but are not limited to) Banshees, Changelings, Gancanagh, Pucas, Selkies, Mermaids and Sluagh. These entities live in various places — some underground in fairy mounds, some in oceans, and some in an invisible world, or parallel universe, that coexists with the world of humans.

Leprechauns are believed to be among the first inhabitants of Ireland, arriving long before the Celtic tribes.  Their life-span can last several hundreds of years. Some folklorists consider leprechauns to be the true natives of Ireland, descended from Irish kings and queens. To this day, Leprechauns can only ever be found in Ireland. They are usually sighted in rural areas away from the general population, or burrowed deep in underground caves, or within the hollow trunk of a Fairy Tree.

They are great musicians, known for their love of traditional Irish music and dance. They often hold cèilidh (pronounced kelli — a party of music, dance and story-telling) that last for days on end. Their favorite instruments are the fiddle, the tin whistle, the Bodhran (Irish drum) and the harp.  A generous leprechaun might even bestow musical abilities upon an unsuspecting human.

fairy violin

What do leprechauns look like? Although in modern times they are depicted wearing green, tradition holds that leprechauns usually dress in red coats. According to author David Russell McAnally, who wrote Irish Wonders, a collection of stories first published in 1888:

“He is about three feet high, and is dressed in a little red jacket or roundabout, with red breeches buckled at the knee, gray or black stockings, and a hat, cocked in the style of a century ago, over a little, old, wrinkled face. Round his neck is an Elizabethan ruff, and frills of lace are at his wrists. On the wild west coast, where the Atlantic winds bring almost constant rains, he dispenses with ruff and frills and wears a frieze overcoat over his pretty red suit, so that, unless on the lookout for the cocked hat, ye might pass a Leprechaun on the road and never know it’s himself that’s in it at all!”

Leprechauns are industrious. They work as shoemakers — one of the few species of the Fae world that have their own designated occupation.  Irish author William Butler Yeats, who wrote extensively about faeries, and may have even had a few encounters with them, is quoted as saying, “Because of their love of dancing they (the Fae) will constantly need shoes.”

Leprechauns are rich. Because they are so hard-working, they also accumulate a lot of gold, which they keep (of course!) in a pot that might be hidden somewhere at the end of a rainbow.

Leprechauns generally avoid humans, and with good reason. If a human is able to capture a leprechaun, the leprechaun must then reveal the hiding place of his gold in order to earn his escape.  However, if you do manage to catch one of these little sprites, beware! They have been known to promise a lot but deliver nothing. They are fast talkers, full of confusion and trickery.  As a matter of fact, no human has ever gotten rich from capturing a leprechaun!

The following story, an oral tradition called The Leprechaun’s Gold, illustrates this point perfectly:

“’TWAS a fine sunny day at harvest time when young Seamus O’Donnell, walking along the road, heard a tapping sound.  Peering over the hedge, he saw a tiny man in a little leather apron, mending a little shoe.

“Well, well, well!” said Seamus to himself.  “I truly never expected to meet a leprechaun.  Now that I have, I must not let this chance slip away.  For everyone knows that leprechauns keep a pot of gold hidden nearby.  All I have to do is to find it, and I am set for the rest of my life.”

Greeting the leprechaun politely, Seamus asked about his health.  However, after a few minutes of idle conversation, Seamus became impatient.  He grabbed the leprechaun and demanded to know where the gold was hidden.

“All right!  All right!” cried the little man.  “It is near here.  I’ll show you.”

Together they set off across the fields as Seamus was careful never to take his eyes off the little man who was guiding him.  At last they came to a field of golden ragwort.

The leprechaun pointed to a large plant.

“The gold is under here,” he said.  “All you have to do is to dig down and find it.”

Now Seamus didn’t have anything with him to use for digging, but he was not entirely stupid. He pulled of his red neckerchief and tied it to the plant so that he would recognize it again.

“Promise me,” he said to the leprechaun, “that you will not untie that scarf.”
The little man promised faithfully.

Seamus dropped the leprechaun and ran home as fast as he could to fetch a shovel.  Within five minutes, he was back at the field.  But what a sight met his eyes!  Every single ragwort plant in the whole field — and there were hundreds of them — had a red neckerchief tied around it.

Slowly, young Seamus walked home with his shovel.  He didn’t have his gold.  He didn’t have the leprechaun.

And now, he didn’t even have his neckerchief.”

Moral of the story? Perhaps humans should not meddle in the affairs of leprechauns!

And finally, here is a fun little documentary about faeries and leprechauns in Ireland.  Running time is about 23 minutes. Hope you like it!

Have a safe and magical Saint Patrick’s Day!

 

 

 

 

 

Saint Agnes and the Virgins

 

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 “They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve, 

 Young virgins might have visions of delight, 

 And soft adorings from their loves receive 

Upon the honey’d middle of the night, 

 If ceremonies due they did aright.”    — John Keats

 

Single ladies, you might want to pay special attention to your dreams tonight. Legend has it that after midnight on the Eve of Saint Agnes Day (January 21st) young women are likely to dream of their future husband.

Of course, you will have to perform a few rituals in order to make this happen.

First, take one sprig of rosemary and one sprig of thyme.

Rosemaryandthyme1

Sprinkle them with water.  Put the rosemary in your left shoe and the thyme in your right. Place each shoe on opposite sides of your bed.

Next, make sure you go to bed without any supper. (Apparently hunger is a good state to induce psychic dreaming.) Then, take off all your clothes, get in bed and lie supine with your hands underneath your pillow.  Look up to the heavens and do not look behind you. Before falling asleep say,

“Saint Agnes, that’s to lovers kind

 Come ease the trouble of my mind.”

Your future husband will then appear in your dream, kiss you and join you for the dinner you so devoutly skipped hours before.

Agnes 5

This is an interesting tradition and it got me wondering: Just who was Saint Agnes and what qualifies her for this type of husband dreaming?

According to tradition, Agnes was a member of the Roman nobility. She was born in 291 AD and raised in one of the few early Catholic families, long before Constantine decided to convert the entire Roman empire to Christianity.

Agnes was a beautiful girl from a wealthy family and therefore considered a great catch for any man, since she had both good looks and money.  By the time she was twelve years old, Agnes was considered to be of marrying age. ( I know! Horrendous by our standards, but quite normal for the 3rd century.)  Many young men of noble status came calling but Agnes chose not to wed and was determined to keep her virginity.  The guys, insulted by Agnes’ devotion to sexual purity, submitted her name to the authorities as a follower of Christianity. This of course led to her arrest.

The Prefect Sempronius (head honcho) condemned Agnes to be dragged naked through the streets to a brothel. Legend has it that as she prayed, her hair grew long enough to cover her entire body. (She at least had it easier than Cersei Lannister!)

agnes 4

It was also said that men attempted to rape her in the street, but all of them were immediately struck blind.

One of these men happened to be the son of Prefect Sempronius. He was struck not only blind but dead. However, he was revived after Agnes prayed for him. Even so, Agnes was still put on trial and sentenced to be burned at the stake.  She was bound, gagged and  tied down, but miraculously, the bundle of wood beneath her would not burn! The officer in charge then drew his sword and without blinking an eyelash, promptly beheaded her.

Agnes died on January 21, 304 AD, at the tender age of thirteen.

Perhaps you noticed a bit of irony here…  Why would a virgin martyr, famous for purity and chastity, be qualified to predict the future husbands of young girls? Some ideas about this were clarified by author Robert Ellsberg in his book Blessed Among All Women: Saints Prophets and Witnesses For Our Time.

Ellsberg states: “In the story of Agnes the opposition is not between sex and virginity. The conflict is between a young woman’s power in Christ to define her own identity versus a patriarchal culture’s claim to identify her in terms of her sexuality.”

According to the view shared by Roman culture at the time, if Agnes would not agree to be one man’s wife, she might as well be every man’s whore. (Hence the trip to the brothel.)

Ellsberg further claims: “Agnes did not choose death. She chose not to worship the gods of her culture. …Espoused to Christ, she was beyond the power of any man to ‘have his way with her’. ‘Virgin’ in this case is another way of saying Free Woman.”  It may be that because Agnes made a strong but painful choice, she was given the power to reveal a choice to others.

Saint Agnes’ story has inspired many artists including William Holman Hunt and  John Everett Millais.

Agnes 6

In the winter of 1819, poet John Keats wrote one of his most famous poems “The Eve of Saint Agnes”. The poem tells a medieval tale of a forbidden tryst between lovers Madeline and Porphyro, who, like Romeo and Juliet are both victims of their families ancient rivalry. The original text was reportedly so erotic that Keats’ editors made him tone it down before the poem could be published. Read the full text  HERE.

If you decide to do an Agnes ritual and find a future husband on your horizon,  please let me know!  Here are some further folkloric interpretations of Saint Agnes Dreams:

“If you dream of a man, that’s your future husband! 
If you dream of lots of men you are going to get married many times. 
If you don’t dream of any men it means you will live alone.
If you dream of thistles or thorny plants it means your husband will rarely shave.
If you dream of a puddle it means your husband will sweat profusely.
If you dream of poultry it means your husband’s breath will smell.
If you dream of a mouse it means your husband will be obedient.
If you dream of white clouds it means your husband will be old.
If you dream of eggs it means your husband will be young.”  — Adapted from “The Dark Dreams of the Fertile Woman’s Mind” – Sir Dalton Falsworthy 1831. 

Happy dreaming and happy Saint Agnes Day.

agnes eve