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Fri Mar 11, 1994

If they wad drink nettles in March
And eat mugwort in May,
Sae mony braw maidens
Wadna gang to the clay.

Which is what a mermaid said, too late lamenting, as the coffin passed by her. “Mugwort” sounds homely but is Artemisia, the Mother of Herbs and wormwood’s kin. (Wormwood is strown in March, against fleas; it is the essence in absinthe, the glaucous witch.) Another mermaid on the Galloway coast spoke out in time; the ailing girl’s lover came to her and she told him how to cure his lady of consumption:

Wad ye let the bonnie may die i’ your hand
And the mugwort flowering i’ the land?

But I overleap myself--Mugwort is a summer plant, “picked and purified and strengthened in the smoke of the bonfires on St. John’s Eve, and then made into garlands and hung over doors” (Grigson, p. 382) to keep off all the powers of darkness: “ elves na na evyll thynges may com therein, ne qware herbe Jon comes noyther.”

Una your name is, oldest of herbs
Of might against thirty, and against three,
Of might against venom and the onflying,
Of might against the vile She who fares through the land.

There is a coal found at the root of it, that hung about the neck, will keep from falling-sickness; later herbalists decry this as sorcery.

The traveller who bears it will go unwearied on her way.

It is called Apple-Pie, Bowlocks, Dog’s Ears, Fat Hen, Gall-wood, Green Ginger, Grey Bulwand, Motherwort, Muggons, Old Uncle Harry, Sailor’s Tobacco, and Wormwood.


Mon Mar 21, 1994

“Nettle tops are usually boiled in pottage in the Spring time, to consume the Phlegmatic superfluities in the body of man, that the coldness and moistness of the winter hath left behind. And it is said that if the juice of the roots of nettles be mixed with ale and beer, and given to one that is suspected to have lost her maidenhood, if it remains with her she is a maid, but if she spew it forth she is not.”

-- William Coles, Adam In Eden, 1657

There is a craving for the new green leaves in spring, and traditions solemnize this hunger, from the Paschal bite of bitter herbs to the Easter tansies of the North. The coming out of winter’s Egypt. The bitter herbs are for remembrance, and for medicine; they physic soul and body. (The iron is good for us.) But there is greener folklore to these northern herbs. They have to do with birth and increase, and rebirth.

Tansy, bright and bitter, is Athanasia, the undying. “Let those women that desire Children love this Herb, ‘tis their best Companion, their husband excepted,” says Culpepper, calling for it bruised and laid on the navel. Its flowers are sunlike, and its scent and tang are aromatic. Tansy pudding at Easter purges away the phlegm “engendered of fish in the Lent season.” The dish was once as essential at Easter as mince-pies at Christmas, and the scholarly commended it, in memory of the bitter herbs commanded at Passover.

“To make a Tansy. Take three pints of Cream, fourteen New-laid eggs (the whites of seven put away), one pint of juice of Spinnach, six or seven spoonfuls of juice of Tansy, a Nutmeg (or two) grated small, half a pound of sugar, and a little salt. Beat all these well together, then fry it in a pan with no more Butter than is necessary. When it is enough, serve it up with juice of Orange or slices of Lemon upon it.”

--The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Opened, 1669

Tansies still are made, but without their namesake herb; as marshmallows have no Marsh Mallows, and mincemeat, rarely any meat. They are commonly a sort of egg-and-apple pudding (see Dorothy Hartley), but almost anything goes in. Isaak Walton speaks of “minnow tansies” (“a fishy type of scrambled egg,” says Hartley), others of gooseberry tansy, and there’s even a nice 16th century mention of a tansy of the “Neppe that cattes delite in.” A cheerful word. A “tansy” was once a merrymaking, a Shrove Tuesday feast.

Children eat sorrel and hawthorn buds, called “bread-and-cheese.”

Dandelions, shaggy and yellow-headed, stubbornly entrenching, like a horde of ancient Britons on the lawn, are good in salads, and cleansing to the body. Their country names are Bum-Pipes and Piss-a-Bed. As well as Clocks and Watches, Combs and Hairpins (for their White Queenish dishevelment?), Devil’s Milk-Pail (for their sap?), Lay-a-Bed, Lion’s Teeth, Male, Monk’s Head, Priest’s Crown, Shepherd’s Clock, Stink Davie, Swine’s Snout, What o’Clock, Wishes, Witch Gowans.

Husbands, too, need gingering. “All sorts of vittles I did provide, All sorts of meats that’s fitting for him, With oyster-pie and rhubarb too, But nothing will put courage in him, Oh dear O...” She should have tried Wake Robin. The Cuckoo Pint or Lords and Ladies* is stronger stuff. “They have eaten so much Wake Robin, that they cannot sleep for love.” (John Lyly, Loves Metamorphosis, 1601) Not a drowsy herb. “Beares after they have lien in their dens forty daies without any manner of sustenance, but what they get with licking and sucking their owne feet, doe as soone as they come forth eat the herbe Aristole...and others do write.” (Gerard’s Herball)

* The Cuckoo Pint is also known as: Adam and Eve; Adder's Tongue; Angels and Devils; Babe-in-the-Cradle; Bloody Man's Finger; Bobbin Joan; Bulls and Cows; Cocky Baby; Cuckoo Cock; Dead Man's Fingers; Devils, Ladies and Gentlemen; Dog's Dibble; Fly Catcher; Frog's Meat; Gentleman's Finger; Great Dragon; Hobble-Gobbles; Jack-in-the-Green; Jack-in-the-Pulpit; Kings and Queens; Kitty-Come-Down-the-Lane- Jump-Up-and-Kiss-Me; Knights and Ladies; Lady's Keys; Lady's Smock; Lamb in a Pulpit; Long Purples; Mandrake; Moll of the Woods; Parson in his Smock; Parson's Billycock; Priest's Pilly; Pokers; Ram's Horn; Red-Hot Poker; Schoolmaster; Silly Lovers; Small Dragon; Snake's Meat; Soldiers and Sailors; Standing Gusses; Sucky Calves; Sweethearts; Toad's Meat; and Wake Robin.

Or she could try him with Orchis mascula, Shakespeare’s “long purples, That liberal shepherds give a grosser name, But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.” Among the unmaidenly names are: Adam and Eve, Aaron’s Beard; Dog Stones and Fox Stones; Cock-Flower, Ram’s Horn, and Bull’s Bags; Jolly Soldiers, Spotted Dog, and Standing Gussets, Underground Shepherd, and Granfer-Griggle-Sticks (now that would be a good name for rhubarb), and a hundred others. In Thessaly, they called them dog stones, kunosorchis, says Dioscorides, and women gave their men the roots in goat’s milk, “the full one for exciting desire, the slack one for restraining it.” (Grigson) Herbalists in the Middle Ages dug the roots, and made a distillation of them called “the water of Satyrion,” a drink “provocative to Venery.” They carried their lore across the water. In seventeenth century New England, John Josselyn says, he took note “of a wanton womans compounding of the...roots...with Wine, for an Amorous Cup; which wrought the desired affect.” As late as the nineteenth century, the powdered roots, called salep or saloop or salop (from the Arabic for orchid, tha’ leb, literally, “fox’s testicles”) were used to make hot drinks, and thought restorative. The sailors on the voyage in search of the North-west Passage were issued an ounce of it a day as iron rations, along with biscuits, spirits, potted meat &c. Chimneysweeps and urchins drank it in streets of Dickensian London (the inquisitive Mayhew speaks of it). It dwindled at last to a sort of Ovaltine.

[And I’ve just (2005) seen it as a flavor of “Phoenician” gelato.]

Bistort, “twise writhen,” so named for its twisted snake-like roots, is a tall bright flower of the northern meadows, damask like a lady’s cheek. It grows by water, “flushing the grass with pink, with the spiked knaps...’set full of small whitish flowers, declining to carnation.’” (Grigson) It is called Adderwort, Passion Dock, and Easter Ledges. This last is a folk-name, a miscalling, by way of Oysterloyte and Astrologia, of Aristolochia or “best-birth,” which “hath cause to retayne and conceyve.” Gerard’s Herball calls it Adderwort and Snakeweed. Snakes (as [ST] reminds me) are emblems of rebirth and wisdom. Remember that on Bride’s day, the adders come out from their winter lairs to greet the sun? Bride is a sun-goddess, and her concerns are birth and healing. I would guess that Bistort is among her flowers. It is eaten at Passiontide, in the North of England, from the Lakes in Cumbria and eastward to the Yorkshire hills. [ST] says they still do it round her way, or talk about how their granny always used to.) In the stone-flagged kitchens of the farms, it is chopped and seethed with Dandelion, Nettle, Lady’s Mantle, boiled up in a pudding bag and served prosaically with bacon.

“Pick young Easter Ledge Leaves, and drop them with leaves of Dandelion, Lady’s Mantle, or Nettle into boiling water and cook for 20 minutes. Strain and chop. Add a little boiled barley, a chopped egg (hard-boiled), butter, pepper, salt. Heat in a saucepan and press into a pudding basin. Serve with veal and bacon.”

“To make Easter Ledge pudding. Take a pound each of young Passion Docks and young nettles and a large onion, and chop them small; then put to them a teacup full of washed barley and half a teaspoon of salt and mix them together. Boil them in a muslin bag for two hours, and then beat them with a egg, butter, salt and pepper, and oatmeal if you wish. Eat the pudding fried with eggs and bacon or veal.”

Nettles and Dandelions are cleansing herbs; Lady’s Mantle is a wound herb and a birthwort. It is northern magic, not in Pliny. “Alchemilla” is its Renaissance Latin name, the “little magical one.” In Scotland and Ireland, they call it Elf-Shot, as it heals that flinty paralysis in beasts and men. Like Rowan, it protects from elves and all unseely things. In Irish, it is falaing Muire, Mary’s mantle, bratog Muire, Mary’s rag. Its name in Scotland is Dew-cup (copan an druichd), and its distillation brings conception. “In the night it closeth it selfe together lyke a purse, and in the morning it is found ful of dewe.”

Oh, said [ST], there’s that carol that they sing at Christmas, “I sing of a maiden that is makeles,” and it should be for Lady-day; it’s about conception, not birth: “He cam also stille ther His moder was, as dew in Aprille that falleth on the gras.” Ah, I said, listening. And there’s “Eight for the April rainers," she said. (I’ve just found a Qabalistic reading of “Green Grow the Rushes O.” Heavens.) More watery influences. The rainers are the Hyades, moist and kindly stars, awakening seed and spring. In the month of Eostre, goddess of the spring and dawn, they rise before her, as the maidens rise that wash their faces in the dew. The moon and the dewfall are mysteries, streaming from the heavens. (“Canst thou bind the sweet influences of the Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?” ) They bring changes: healing and lunacy, childing and birth. “Don’t ever sleep in the moonlight,” says [ST]. And oh yes, says [RN] gravely: he’s seen a number of women with child by the moon. Oh, I say, and who does the baby take after?

March is the Annunciation. There are images of Gabriel as huntsman with his horn, driving the unicorn to the Virgin’s lap, to be embodied in her flesh, his death. In the tapestry now hanging in the Cloisters, woven for the celebration of a noble wedding, he stands forever in the O of his captivity, the hortus conclusus that is the Virgin’s womb. He is tied to a pomegranate tree, Persephone’s bondage, to birth and blood. Like her, he sojourns in the underworld, the dark, and rises, yearly and forever, into light. Her tree (like Eve’s) bears sorrow and fruition. (“Ne had the apple taken been...Ne hadde never been our Lady a been heaven’s queen. Blessed be the time that apple taken was! Therefore we may singen Deo Gratias!”) He stands among the flowers of Venus. Among them are: the scented Violet, the Periwinkle, of which Culpepper writes, “Venus owns this Herb, and saith, that the Leaves eaten by Man and Wife together, cause Love between them”; the Cuckoo-Pint, the Early Purple Orchid, Bistort, and the Bluebell (Endymion nonscriptus), unknown to antiquity, “a hyacinth not inscribed with AI, AI on the petals, not the flower which sprang from the blood of Hyacinthus, carrying those letters of grief.” (Endymion’s the moon’s love.) He stands within the O, that is and was and ever shall be, while around the walls, his woven story runs on to his death, returning as the viewer turns, to spring where he began.



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