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May 2021

Myth & Moor update

Ivy, beech, and bluebells

Hound and bluebells

It's another three-day holiday weekend here in the UK, and the Bumblehill Studio will be closed through Monday. Myth & Moor will resume on Tuesday, June 1st.

I hope the last days of "the pleasant month of May" are enchanting for you all. 

Moss and bluebells

Tilly, moss, and bluebells

Music above: "The Pleasant Month of May," a traditional song performed by Jackie Oates, from her third album, Hyperboreans (2009).


Stories are medicine

Tilly at the river in Stiniel

For the last two weeks we've been discussing the folklore of spring wildflowers -- including the ways these plants have long been used by healers, herbalists, and hedgewitches to ease or heal afflictions of the body, mind, and spirit. In traditional oral cultures, folk wisdom of this sort was often passed down through stories, rhymes, proverbs, or other mnemonic devices; and in a number of these cultures, the stories themselves were a form of medicine, as necessary to the healing process as any plant-based salve, poultice, brew, or potion.

Illustration by Helen StrattonThere has long been a mythic link between storytelling and the healing arts -- so much so that in ancient societies found world-wide storytellers and healers were one and the same. Stories were valued not only for entertainment but also as a means to ensure or restore good health (both physical and mental), and to help overcome ordeals of calamity, grief, or trauma.

In some shamanic traditions, magical tales are told in a ritual manner to facilitate specific acts of healing. In Korea, for example, a well-known fairy tale called "Shimchong, the Blind Man's Daughter," a variant of Beauty and the Beast, plays a role in traditional healing rites related to eyesight. "The 'patient' is supposed to be healed precisely at the climax of the story," explains Korean-American folklorist Heinz Insu Fenkl, "when Old Man Shim opens his eyes and sees his long-lost daughter."

Stiniel 2

Ladies Smock

In Women Who Run With the Wolves, psychologist and folklorist Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes of the healing powers of Hispanic "trance-tellers" who enter into a trance state "between worlds" in order to "attract" a story to them. Such stories are said to contain the mythic information the listeners most need to hear. "The trance-teller calls on El Duende," says Estés, "the wind that blows soul into the faces of listeners. A trance-teller learns to be psychically double-jointed through the meditative practice of story, that is, training oneself to undo certain psychic gates and ego apertures in order to let the voice speak, the voice that is older than the stones. When this is done, the story may take any trail....The teller never knows how it will all come out, and that is at least half of the moist magic of the story."

Stiniel 1

Storytelling also plays an important role in the shamanic practices of Siberia -- where, as in Korea, it is often women who perform the traditional healing rites. "Oral storytelling is the way shamans themselves convey spiritual truths," writes Kira Van Duesen in The Flying Tiger: Women Shamans and Storytellers of the Amur. "Through the power of words and sounds, stories and songs act directly on the listener to bring about healing and spiritual growth. More important than the content of the tales is the process of telling them -- the way a storyteller chooses the tale, the details added or removed, the tone -- all these make storytelling a spiritual act. Stories and songs are not objects or artifacts but living beings."

Stiniel 5

Stiniel 6

Stiniel 7

In many Native American cultures illness indicates that the patient's life, spirit, or relationships have gone out of balance and harmony; a restoration of spiritual balance is required before a physical illness can be cured. Among the Diné (Navajo), in the high desert of northern Arizona and New Mexico, health and longevity are attained by "walking in beauty," living in harmony within oneself and with the natural world. If this harmony is lost, it can be restored through elaborate, days-long ceremonies during which some of the most ancient, sacred stories of the tribe are chanted and painted in sand. In the traditional lore of the Tohono O'Odham, whose low desert homeland stretches across the Arizona/Mexico border, disease is caused by improper relationships with the bird and animal worlds. The repetition of certain stories and songs brings these relationships back into harmony and the sufferer back to health.

"A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves," says British-Nigerian novelist and essayist Ben Okri. "Sick storytellers can make nations sick. Without stories we would go mad. Life would lose it’s moorings or orientation. Even in silence we are living our stories."

Stiniel 8

Stiniel 8

Stories are central to the healing practices of the traditional Gaelic culture of Scotland -- of which the leading characteristics, writes Noragh Jones (in Power of Raven, Wisdom of Serpent), "are an instinctive ability to gather healing plants from their own locality when they are sick; a heritage of herbal remedies handed on from mother to daughter which have been tried and tested in everyday situations -- part of the informal education of the household; a sense that illness is some kind of imbalance in the individual, and so mind and body and spirit must be treated as a whole; and a conviction that healing is a spiritual resource as well as a physical process." 

Stiniel 10

Herbalists and hedgewitches of the British Isles once used stories not only as a means to preserve information about the medicinal properties of plants, but also as a method of communication with the spirits of the plants themselves. In trance states induced by ritual fasting, prayer, or the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms, they communed with the plants in order to learn the best ways to gather, preserve, and use them. Likewise, the stories told by Siberian shamans weren't always meant for human ears but for the various plant, animal, and supernatural spirits who aided in their rites of healing.

Stiniel 11

The medicine men and women of the various indigenous tribes living in the Amazon have long been renown for their deep knowledge of the healing properties of plants, sometimes gained during trances induced by hallucinogenics such as ayahuaska. A relationship must be established between the healer and the plant in question, however. In Plant Spirit Medicine, Eliot Cowan tells the tale of an American friend in the Amazon. The man meets a hunter-shaman who takes him on a long walk through the jungle, pointing out plants and listing the various ways he has used them to heal. The American wants to write this all down, which makes the shaman howl with laughter. No, no, he explains, "that was just to introduce you to some of the plants. If you actually want to use a plant yourself, the spirit of the plant must come to you in dreams. If the spirit tells you how to prepare it and what it will cure, you can use it. Otherwise it won’t work for you."

"There is a plant for everything in the world; all you have to do is find it," an old herb-woman in the Louisiana Bayou told folklorist Ruth Bass in 1920s. And there's a folk story attached to nearly every plant -- as volumes of folklore and herb lore from all around the world can attest. The history of modern medicine is rooted in the history of folk medicine, entwined with myths, folk tales, fairy tales, and the homespun magics of countryside healers.

Stiniel 12

Stitchwort

Stiniel 13

Two excellent novels exploring the connections between folk medicine, myth, spirituality, and the mysteries of the natural world are The Limits of Enchantment by the late Graham Joyce, and The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea.

The first of these, The Limits of Enchantment, set in the deep green hills of the English countryside in 1966, is a story about a hedgerow healer and midwife, the apprenticeship of her adopted daughter, and their struggle to maintain an ancient way of life in the modern world. The Hummingbird's Daughter, by contrast, is set in the dusty brown hills of northern México in the years before the Mexican Revolution. The novel is based on the real-life story of the author's great-Aunt Teresita, the illegitimate child of a prosperous rancher and a Yaqui Indian girl. Apprenticed to an Indian medicine woman, Teresita demonstrated such miraculous healing powers that her fame spread through northern México, leading to denunciation by the Catholic church and accusations of fomenting an Indian uprising. Both of these novels are coming-of-age stories about young women with remarkable gifts, looking at the ways that indigenous healing traditions are passed through the generations -- and how such gifts are both feared and revered in a world uncomfortable with Mystery.

Limits of Enchantment & The Hummingbird's Daughter

In a number of Native American traditions, the word "medicine" does not refer to the pills or tonics we take to cure an illness but to anything that has spiritual power, and that helps to keep us "walking in beauty."

Words can be strong medicine. Stories can touch our hearts and souls; they can point the way to healing and transformation. Our own lives are stories that we write from day to day; they are journeys through the dark of the fairy tale woods. The tales of previous travellers through the woods are passed down to us in the poetic, symbolic language of folklore and myth; where we step, someone has stepped before, and their stories can help light the way.

Bluebells 3

The articles and books cited in this post are: "Simchong, The Blindman's Daughter" and "Storytelling and Healing" by Heinz Insu Fenkl  (The Journal of Mythic Arts), Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths & Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés (Ballentine, 1992), The Flying Tiger: Women Shamans and Storytellers of the Amur by Kira Van Deusen (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001), Birds of Heaven: Two Essays by Ben Okri (Phoenix, 1996), Power of Raven, Wisdom of Serpent: Celtic Women's Spirituality by Noragh Jones (Floris Books, 1994), Plant Spirit Medicine: A Journey Into the Wisdom of Plants by Eliot Cowan (Granite Publishing, 1996), "Fern Seed - For Peace" by Ruth Bass (Folk-Say: A Regional Miscellany, edited by BA Botkin, U of Oklahoma Press, 1931), The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce (Gollancz, 2005), and The Hummingbird's Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea (Little Brown, 2005). The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry (March 2021). All rights to the text above reserved by the authors. The ink drawing above is by Helen Stratton (1867-1961).

For a good book of folk stories associated with plants, I highly recommend Botanical Folk Tales of Britain & Ireland by my friend and neighbour Lisa Schneidau. Her latest book, Woodland Folk Tales of Britain & Ireland, is also a treat.


The bluebell path

Bluebells 1

Today, for this sequence of wildflower posts, I'm following Tilly on a bluebell path...which in folklore (as we discussed earlier) is a dangerous thing to do. The bluepath path is the way into Faerie, and doesn't always lead home again.

Like most of the season's wildflowers, bluebells are an ephemeral pleasure, here today and gone tomorrow. If I want to enjoy them fully then I must take the time to be outdoors right now, not wait until the day's chores are finished and studio goals are met. As a working artist tied to schedules and deadlines, my mind often dwelling in the past or the future, the brevity of the bluebell season pulls me back into the immediate present: to this fragrant blue-tinted hillside experienced with all of my senses.

Bluebells 2

Like every writer, I'm often asked where I find inspiration for my work. There's no single answer to the question, of course, for all kinds of things go into each author's creative mix: our personal histories, experiences, interests, and obsessions, along with the influence of other artists and other works of art. But for me, most of all, inspiration comes from the land: from the folklore-steeped Devon countryside, from the myth-haunted deserts of the American south-west, from the paths I've walked over and over again, creating relationships with the local flora and fauna, and learning their traditional stories.

Bluebells 3

Ursula K. Le Guin has this to say on the subject of inspiration:

"It's a big question -- where do writers get their ideas, where do artists get their visions, where do musicians get their music? It's bound to have a big answer. Or a whole lot of them. One of my favorite answers is this: Somebody asked Willie Nelson how he thought up his tunes, and he said, 'The air is full of tunes, I just reach up and pick one.'

"For a fiction writer -- a storyteller -- the world is full of stories, and when story is there, it's there; you just reach up and pick it.

"Then you have to be able to tell it to yourself.

Bluebells 4

"First you have to be able to wait. To wait in silence. Listen for the tune, the vision, the story. Not grabbing, not pushing, just waiting, listening, being ready for it when it comes. This is an act of trust. Trust in yourself, trust in the world. The artist says, 'The world will give me what I need and I will be able to use it rightly.'

"Readiness -- not grabbiness, not greed -- readiness: willingness to hear, to listen carefully, to see clearly and accurately -- to let the words be right. Not almost right. Right. To know how to make something out of the vision; that's what practice is for. Because being ready doesn't mean just sitting around, even if it looks like that's what most writers do; artists practice their art continually, and writing happens to involve a lot of sitting. Scales and finger exercises, pencil sketches, endless unfinished and rejected stories. The artist who practices knows the difference between practice and performance, and the essential connection between them. The gift of those seemingly wasted hours and years is patience andf readiness; a good ear, a keen eye, a skilled hand, a rich vocabulary and grammar. The gift of practice to the artist is mastery, or a word I like better, 'craft.'

"With those tools, those instruments, with that hard-earned mastery, that craftiness, you do your best to let the 'idea' -- the tune, the vision, the story -- come through clear and undistorted. Clear of ineptitude, awkwardness, amateurishness; undistorted by convention, fashion, opinion.

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"This is a very radical job, dealing with the ideas you get if you are an artist and take your job seriously, this shaping a vision into the medium of words. It's what I like to do best in the world, and what I like to talk about when I talk about writing. I could happily go on and on about it. But I'm trying to talk about where the vision, the stuff you work on, the 'idea,' comes from, so:

"The air is full of tunes. A piece of rock is full of statues. The earth is full of visions. The world is full of stories.

"As an artist, you trust that."

Bluebells 6

The world is, indeed, full of stories upon stories...but sometimes I find that the quiet tales of the land, and my owner inner voice, are drowned out by the roar of the stories pressing in from the world outside: the urgent stories of politics, pandemics, economics, ecological crisis, all of them important, all of them overwhelming. On those days when "the world is too much with us," I lace on my boots, head for the hills, and let the roar diminish behind me. We need the quieter stories too...or, at least, I know that I need them. So I follow my dog on the bluebell path, and a different world is restored to me. Call it nature, call it Faerie, call it the place where poems and tales pluck at my sleeve saying: Tell me next. Tilly and I vanish into the blue....

And somehow we always find our way home.

Bluebells 7

Bluebells 8

The passage above is from "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" by Ursula K. Le Guin, a talk for the Portland Arts & Lectures series, October, 2000, published in The World Spit Open (Tin House Books, 2014). The quotes tucked into the picture captions (run your cursor over the pictures to see them) come from a variety of sources, cited with the quotes. All rights reserved by the authors. For more posts on creative inspiration, go here.


The folklore of foxgloves

Devon foxgloves

In the edge of the fields and along woodland trails, I see the green leaves of foxgloves begin to unfurl, but it will be some weeks yet before they grow tall and grace the hills with their spires of blooms.

Foxgloves on the path

Folklorists are divided on where the common name for Digitalis purpurea comes from. In some areas of the British Isles it's believed be a corruption of "folksglove," associating the flowers with the fairy folk, while in others the plant is also known as "fox fingers," its blossoms used as gloves by the foxes to keep dew off their paws. Another theory suggests that the name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word foxes-gleow, a "gleow" being a ring of bells. This is connected to Norse legends in which foxes wear the bell-shaped foxglove blossoms around their necks; the ringing of bells was a spell of protection against hunters and hounds.

Foxglove spires

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden

Foxgloves give us digitalin, a glysoside used to treat heart disease, and this powerful plant has been used for heart tonics since Celtic and Roman times. Botanist Bobby J. Ward gives us this account of early foxglove use in his excellent book A Contemplation Upon Flowers:

"An old Welsh legend claims to be the first to proscribe it, because the knowledge of its properties came to the meddygon, the Welsh physicians, in a magical way. The legend is loosely based on the early 13th century historical figure Rhiwallon, the physician to Foxglove Fairy by Cicely Mary BarkerPrince Rhys the Hoarse, of South Wales. Young Rhiwallon was walking beside a lake one evening when from the mist rose a golden boat. A beautiful maiden was rowing the boat with golden oars. She glided softly away in the mist before he could speak to her. Rhiwallon returned every evening looking for the maiden; when he did not find her, he asked advice from a wise man. He told Rhiwallon to offer her cheese. Rhiwallon did as he was told, the maiden appeared and took his offering. She came ashore, became his wife, and bore him three sons.

"After the sons grew and the youngest became a man, Rhiwallon's wife rowed into the lake one day and returned with a magic box hinged with jewels. She told Rhiwallon he must strike her three times so that she could return to the mist forever. He refused to hit her, but the next morning as he finished breakfast and prepared to go to work, Rhiwallon tapped his wife affectionately on the shoulder three times. Instantly a cloud of mist enveloped her and she disappeared. Left behind was the bejeweled magic box. When the three sons opened it, they found a list of all the medicinal herbs, including foxglove, with full directions for their use and healing properties. With this knowledge the sons became the most famous of physicians."

Foxgloves in summer

Foxglove by Christie Newman

Foxgloves

Foxglove is a plant beloved by the fairies, and its appearance in the wild indicates their presence. Likewise, fairies can be attracted to a dometic garden by planting foxgloves. Dew collected from the blossoms is used in spells for communicating with fairies, though gloves must be worn when handling the plant as digitalis can be toxic.

FoxgloveIn the Scottish borders, foxgloves leaves were strewn about babies' cradles for protection from bewitchement, while in Shropshire they were put in children's shoes for the same reason (and also as a cure for Scarlet Fever). Picking foxglove flowers is said to be unlucky. Here in Devon and Cornwall, this is because it robs the fairies, elves, and piskies of a plant they particularly delight in; in the north of England, foxglove flowers in the house are said to allow the Devil entrance.

In Roman times, foxglove was a flower sacred to the goddess Flora, who touched Hera on her breasts and belly with foxglove in order to impregnate her with the god Mars. The plant has been associated with midwifery and women's magic ever since -- as well as with "white witches" (practitioners of benign and healing magic) who live in the wild with vixen familiars, the latter marked by bells made of foxglove blossoms tied around their necks.  In medieval gardens, the plant was believed to be sacred to the Virgin Mary. In the earliest recordings of the Language of Flowers, foxgloves symbolized riddles, conundrums, and secrets, but by the Victorian era they had devolved into the more negative symbol of insincerity.

A lovely old legend told here in the West Country explains why foxgloves bob and sway even when there is no wind: this is the plant bowing to the fairy folk as they pass by. Wherever foxgloves grow in abundance you can be sure it's a place where the fey are present, for these flowers thrive in a loam of old stories, riddles, secrets, and Otherworldly enchantment.

Devon foxgloves

Foxgloves by Kelly Louise Judd

Rosie the Fox by Richard Bowler

The foxes themselves pad through folklore and myth as mischievous Tricksters in various forms: both clever and foolish, creative and destructive, perfectly civilized and utterly wild.  Fox Tricksters appear in the popular tales of many cultures around the world, including Aesop's Fables from ancient Greece, the "Reynard" stories of medieval Europe,  the "Giovannuzza" tales of Italy, the "Brer Fox" lore of the American South, and the diverse indigenous stories of North and South America. At the darker end of the fox-lore spectrum, however, we find creatures of a distinctly more dangerous cast: Reynardine, Mr. Fox, kitsune (the Japanese fox wife), kumiho (the Korean nine-tailed fox), and other treacherous shape-shifters.

Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit by AB FrostFox women appear in many story traditions but they're particularly prevalent across the Far East. Fox wives, writes folklorist Heinz Insu Fenkle (in a good article on the subject) are seductive creatures who "entice unwary scholars and travelers with the lure of their sexuality and the illusion of their beauty and riches. They drain the men of their yang -- their masculine force -- and leave them dissipated or dead (much in the same way La Belle Dame Sans Merci in Keats's poem leaves her parade of hapless male victims). 

"Korean fox lore, which comes from China (from sources probably originating in India and overlapping with Sumerian lamia lore) is actually quite simple compared to the complex body of fox culture that evolved in Japan. The Japanese fox, or kitsune, probably due to its resonance with the indigenous Shinto religion, is remarkably sophisticated.  Whereas the arcane aspects of fox lore are only known to specialists in other East Asian countries, the Japanese kitsune lore is more commonly accessible. Tabloid media in Tokyo recently identified the negative influence of kitsune possession among members of the Aum Shinregyo (the cult responsible for the sarin attacks in the Tokyo subway). Popular media often report stories of young women possessed by demonic kitsune, and once in a while, in the more rural areas, one will run across positive reports of the kitsune associated with the rice god, Inari."

Fox Maiden by Susan Seddon Boulet

Fox Nest by Flora McLachlan

The "nine-tailed fox" of China and Japan is often (but not always) a demonic spirit, malevolent in intent. It takes possession of human bodies, both male and female, moving for one victim to another over thousands of years, seducing other men and women in order to dine on their hearts and livers. Human organs are also a delicacy for the nine-tailed fox, or kumiho, of Korean lore -- although the earliest texts don't present the kumiho as evil so much as amoral and unpredictable...occasionally even benevolent...much like the faeries of English folklore.

The Princess and the Fox by H.J. FordThere are fox lovers and wives in the Western tradition, but their tales are less well known; and they tend, by and large, to be better disposed to the men that they take to their beds. Marriage to a fox is challenging at best, for they are not mortal, they are creatures of the wild: mysterious, independent, and not to be tamed nor taken for granted. (My favourite fox woman story of this sort is retold by Dartmoor mythographer Martin Shaw in his brilliant book Scatterlings. )

In the West, it's the fox men we need to be wary of -- such as Reynardine (in the old folk ballad of that name), a glib and handsome were-fox who lures young maidens to a bloody death. The title character of the fairy tale Mr. Fox, is cousin to the kumiho and Reynardine, with a bit of Bluebeard mixed in for good measure: he promises marriage to a gentlewoman while his lair is littered with her predecessors' bones. Neil Gaiman draws inspiration from the tale in his wry, wicked poem "The White Road" -- while Jeannine Hall Gailey, by contast, takes a more sympathetic view of shape-shifting foxes in "The Fox-Wife's Invitation," written from a kitsune's point of view.

Fox art by Jessica Roux, Gina Litherland, and David Hollington

Photograph by David Bowler

Illustration by Julianna Swaney

There are a number of good novels that draw upon fox legends -- foremost among them, Kij Johnson's exquisite The Fox Woman, which no mythic fiction reader should miss. I also recommend Neil Gaiman's The Dream Hunters (with the Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano);  Larissa Lai's When Fox Is a Thousand; and Ellen Steiber's gorgeous A Rumor of Gems (as well as her heart-breaking novella "The Fox Wife," published in Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears). Alice Hoffman's disquieting Here on Earth is a contemporary take on the Reynardine/Mr. Fox theme, as is Helen Oyeyemi's Mr. Fox, a complex work full of stories within stories within stories. For younger readers, try the "Legend of Little Fur" series by Isobelle Carmody. And for mythic poetry, I especially recommend She Returns to the Floating World by Jeannine Hall Gailey and Sister Fox’s Field Guide to the Writing Life by Jane Yolen. (More fox tales are listed here.)

For the fox in myth, legend, and lore, try: Fox by Martin Wallen; Reynard the Fox, edited by Kenneth Varty; Kitsune: Japan's Fox of Mystery, Romance, and Humour by Kiyoshi Nozaki; Alien Kind: Foxes and Late Imperial Chinese Narrative by Raina Huntington; The Discourse on Foxes and Ghosts: Ji Yun and Eighteenth-Century Literati Storytelling by Leo Tak-hung Chan; The Fox and the Jewel: Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship, by Karen Smythers; and an interesting post on the fox in folklore, literature and art by artist David Hollington.

Fox stories

Little Evie in the Wildwood by Catherine Hyde

Although chancy to encounter in myth, and too wild to domesticate easily (in stories and in life), some of us long for foxes nonetheless: for their musky scent, their hot breath, their sharp-toothed magic.  "I needed fox," wrote Adrienne Rich:

Badly I needed
a vixen for the long time none had come near me
I needed recognition from a
triangulated face burnt-yellow eyes
fronting the long body the fierce and sacrificial tail
I needed history of fox  briars of legend it was said she had run through
I was in want of fox

And the truth of briars she had to have run through
I craved to feel on her pelt if my hands could even slide
past or her body slide between them sharp truth distressing surfaces of fur
lacerated skin calling legend to account
a vixen's courage in vixen terms

P1310995

Tilly and the foxgloves

Now go softly. Go gently. Go warily. Soon the tall spires of foxgloves will bloom, and then you will know that the Good Folk are near. Look for their gloves discarded on the path. Listen for the sound of foxglove bells. Breathe in the sharp scent of the wild...and go home, changed.

You will dream of foxes.

Rosie by Richard Bowler

Art: Pages from The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden (1871-1920), "Foxglove Fairy" by Cicely Mary Barker (1875-1973),  "Foxglove" by botanical artist Christie Newman,  a page from Flora Londinensis by English apothecary & botanist William Curtis (1746-1799), "Foxgloves" by Kelly Louise Judd,  "Fox Woman" by Susan Seddon Boulet (1941-1997), "Fox Nest" by Flora McLachlan,  "The Princess and the Fox" by H.J. Ford (1860-1941), "The Fox and Ivy" by Jessica Roux, "Crossing an Iced-Over Stream" by Gina Litherland, "The Winter Guest" by David Hollington, a small illustration by Julianna Swaney, "Little Evie in the Wild Wood" by Catherine Hyde, The beautiful fox photographs are by by wildlife photographer Richard Bowler. All rights reserved by the artists. 

Words: The Bobby J. Ward passage quotes above is from A Contemplation on Flowers: Garden Plants in Myth & Literature (Timber Press, 2009). All rights reserved by the author. This sequence of wildflower posts is drawn from the Myth & Moor archives (due to current time constraints due to family life). New posts will resume on Tuesday, June 1st.


The folklore of nettles

Nettletops

Nettle gathering

In the fairy tale of "The Wild Swans" by Hans Christian Andersen, the heroine's brothers have been turned into swans by their evil stepmother. A kindly fairy instructs her to gather nettles in a ''The Wild Swans: Picking Nettles by Moonlight'' by Nadezhda Illarionovagraveyard by night, spin their fibers into a prickly green yarn, and then knit the yarn into a coat for each swan brother in order to break the spell -- all of which she must do without speaking a word or her brothers will die. The nettles sting and blister her hands, but she plucks and cards, spins and knits, until the nettle coats are almost done -- running out of time before she can finish the sleeve on the very last coat. She flings the coats onto her swan-brothers and they transform back into young men -- except for the youngest, with the incomplete coat, who is left with a wing in the place of one arm. (And there begins a whole other tale.)

This was one of my favorite stories as a child, for I too had brothers in harm's way, and I too was a silent sister who worked as best I could to keep them safe, and sometimes succeded, and sometimes failed, as the plot of our lives unfolded. The story confirmed that courage can be as painful as knitting coats from nettles, but that goodness can still win out in the end. Spells can broken, and gentle, loving persistence can be the strongest magic of them all.

Wild Swans by Susan Jeffers

The Wild Swans

I grew up with the story, but not with Urtica dioica: "common nettles" or "stinging nettles." I imagined them as dark, thorny, and witchy-looking -- and although they're actually green and ordinary, growing thickly in fields and hedges here in Devon, nettles emerge nonetheless from the loam of old stories and glow with a fairy glamour. It is a plant that heralds the return of spring, a tonic of vitamins and minerals; and also a plant redolent of swans and spells, of love and loss and loyalty, of ancient powers skillfully knotted into the most traditional of women's arts: carding, spinning, knitting, and sewing.

Nettles

Nettle Coat by Alice Maher

According to the Anglo-Saxon "Nine Herbs Charm," recorded in the 10th century, stiðe (nettles) were used as a protection against "elf-shot" (mysterious pains in humans or livestock caused by the arrows of the elvin folk) and"flying venom" (believed at the time to be one of the four primary causes of illness). In Norse myth, nettles are associated with Thor, the god of Thunder; and with Loki, the trickster god, whose magical fishing net is made from them. In Celtic lore, thick stands of nettles indicate that there are fairy dwellings close by, and the sting of the nettle protects against fairy mischief, black magic, and other forms of sorcery.

A basket of nettles

''The Wild Swans'' by Susan Jeffers and Yvonne Gilbert

Midsummer nettles

Nettles once rivalled flax and hemp (and later, cotton) as a staple fiber for thread and yarn, used to make everything from heavy sailcloth to fine table linen up to the 17th/18th centuries. Other fibers proved more economical as the making of cloth became more mechanized, but in some areas (such as the highlands of Scotland) nettle cloth is still made to this day. "In Scotland, I have eaten nettles," said the 18th century poet Thomas Campbell, "I have slept in nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The young and tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other linen."

Nettle hunter at work

"Nettles have numerous virtues," writes Margaret Baker in Discovering the Folklore of Plants. "Nettle oil preceded paraffin; the juice curdled milk and helped to make Cheshire cheese; nettle juice seals leaky barrels; nettles drive frogs from beehives and flies from larders; nettle compost encourages ailing plants; and fruits packed in nettle leaves retain their bloom and freshness.

Nettle hound

Foraging basket

"Mixing medicine and magic, a healer could cure fever by pulling up a nettle by its roots while speaking the patient's name and those of his parents. Roman soldiers in damp Britain found that rheumatic joints responded to a beating with nettles. Tyroleans threw nettles on the fire to avert thunderstorms, and gathered nettle before sunrise to protect their cattle from evil spirits."

Fresh nettle tips

The medicinal value of nettles is confirmed by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal in their useful book Hedgerow Medicine:

Wild Swans by Helen Stratton"Nettle was the Anglo-Saxon sacred herb wergula, and in medieval times nettle beer was drunk for rheumatism. Nettle's high vitamin C content made it a valuable spring tonic for our ancestors after a winter of living on grain and salted meat, with hardly any green vegetables. Nettle soup and porridge were popular spring tonic purifiers, but a pasta or pesto from the leaves is a worthily nutritious modern alternative. Nettle soup is described by one modern writer as 'Springtime herbalism at one of its finest moments.' This soup is the Scottish kail. Tibetans believe that their sage and poet Milarepa (AD 1052-1135) lived solely on nettle soup for many years until he himself turned green: a literal green man.

"Nettles enhance natural immunity, helping protect us from infections. Nettle tea drunk often at the start of a feverish illness is beneficial. Nettles have long been considered a blood tonic and are a wonderful treatment for anaemia, as they are high in both iron and chlorophyll. The iron in nettles is very easily absorbed and assimilated. What cooks will tell you is that two minutes of boiling nettle leaves will neutralize both the silica 'syringes' of the stinging cells and the histamine or formic acid-like solution that is so painful."

Pancake making

At our house, spring is the time for making making nettle pancakes, soups, and breads, rich in the nutrients needed after a long, wet Dartmoor winter. Here's our family recipe for Bumblehill Nettle Soup, which is easy to make and delicious:

First, pick your nettles by pinching off the fresh leaves at the tip of the plant, leaving the plant itself intact. It's best to do this in Stinging nettlesthe spring when the plants are young and the vitamin content at its highest, before the flowers appear. Rinse your nettle tips in cold water, and cut off any woody bits or thick stems. You need to wear gloves while you handle them, but once the nettles are cooked you can safely eat them without any stinging.

Melt some butter in the bottom of the soup pot, add a chopped onion or two, and cook slowly until softened.

Add a litre or so of vegetable or chicken stock, with salt, pepper, and any herbs you fancy.

Add 2 large potatoes (chopped), a large carrot (chopped), and simmer until almost soft. If you like your soup thick, use more potatoes.

Throw in several large handfuls of fresh nettle leaves, and simmer gently for another 10 minutes.

Preparing nettle soup.

Add some cream (to taste), and a pinch of nutmeg. Purée with a blender, and serve. (If you happen to have some truffle oil in your pantry, a light sprinkling on the soup tastes terrific.) Use the left-over nettles for tea, sweetened with honey.

Nettle soup and tea

You can also throw young nettle leaves into pancake, crepe, scone, biscuit, and bread recipes -- just rinse them, chop them, and blanch them in boiling water (to get the sting out) first.  Below, for example: savoury squares of nettle-and-herb flatbread with sea salt, and sweet nettle pancakes. (Savoury nettle pancakes, topped with stir-fried mushrooms, onions, and swiss chard, with crumbled feta cheese, are also very good.)

Nettle-and-herb flatbread

Nettles, herb Robert  and piskie flowers

Nettle pakecakes on the breakfast table

Nettles, folk tales around the world agree, have long been associated with women's domestic magic: with inner strength and fortitude, with healing and also self-healing, with protection and also self-protection, with the ability to "enrich the soil" wherever we have been planted. Nettle magic is steeped in dualities: both fierce and soft, painful and restorative, common as weeds and priceless as jewels. Potent. Tenacious. Humble and often overlooked. Resilient.

And pretty tasty too.

Fresh nettles

''The Wild Swans The Princess and her Swan Brothers'' by Donn P Crane

Words & pictures: The quoted passages are from Discovering the Folklore of Plants by Margaret Baker (Shire Classics, 2008) and Hedgerow Medicine by Julie Bruton-Seal & Matthew Seal (Merlin Unwin Books, 2008).  The illustrations for "The Wild Swans" fairy tale are by Nadezhda Illarionova, Susan Jeffers, Mercer Mayer, Eleanor V. Abbott, Yvonne Gilbert, Helen Stratton, and Donn P. Crane. The Nettle Coat is by Alice Maher.  All rights reserved by the artists and authors. This sequence of wildflower posts is drawn from the Myth & Moor archives (due to current time constraints due to family life). New posts will resume on Tuesday, June 1st. 

Related posts: The folklore of food, and, for more on the Wild Swan fairy tale, Swan's wing. I've written about my personal connection to the fairy tale in "Transformations," but I must give you fair warning that this essay is a dark one.