CHAPTER 6 – PLANTS IN DEMONOLOGY.
The association of certain plants with the devil forms an extensive and important division in their folk-lore, and in many respects is closely connected with their mystic history. It is by no means easy always to account for some of our most beautiful flowers having Satanic surroundings, although frequently the explanation must be sought in their poisonous and deadly qualities. In some cases, too, the student of comparative mythology may trace their evil reputation to those early traditions which were the expressions of certain primitive beliefs, the survivals of which nowadays are found in many an apparently meaningless superstition. Anyhow, the subject is a very wide one, and is equally represented in most countries. It should be remembered, moreover, that rudimentary forms of dualism–the antagonism of a good and evil deity–have from a remote period occupied men’s minds, a system of belief known even among the lower races of mankind. Hence, just as some plants would in process of time acquire a sacred character, others would do the reverse. Amongst the legendary stories and folktales of most countries we find frequent allusion to the devil as an active agent in utilising various flowers for his mischievous pursuits; and on the Continent we are told of a certain evil spirit named Kleure who transforms himself into a tree to escape notice, a superstition which under a variety of forms still lingers here and there. It would seem, too, that in some of our old legends and superstitions the terms Puck and Devil are synonymous, a circumstance which explains the meaning, otherwise unintelligible, of many items of plant-lore in our own and other countries. Thus the word “Puck” has been identified with _Pogge_–toad, under which form the devil was supposed to be personified; and hence probably originated such expressions as toadstools, paddock-stools, &c. The thorns of the eglantine are said to point downwards, because when the devil was excluded from heaven he tried to regain his lost position by means of a ladder composed of its thorns. But when the eglantine was only allowed to grow as a bush, out of spite he placed its thorns in their present eccentric position. The seed of the parsley, “is apt to come up only partially, according as the devil takes his tithe of it.” In Germany “devil’s oaks” are of frequent occurrence, and “one of these at Gotha is held in great regard.” and Gerarde, describing the vervain, with its manifold mystic virtues, says that “the devil did reveal it as a secret and divine medicine.” Belladonna, writes Mr. Conway, is esteemed in Bohemia a favourite plant of the devil, who watches it, but may be drawn from it on Walpurgis Night by letting loose a black hen, after which he will run. Then there is the sow-thistle, which in Russia is said to belong to the devil; and Loki, the evil spirit in northern mythology, is occasionally spoken of as sowing weeds among the good seed; from whence, it has been suggested, originated the popular phrase of “sowing one’s wild oats.” The German peasantry have their “rye-wolf,” a malignant spirit infesting the rye-fields; and in some parts of the Continent orchards are said to be infested by evil demons, who, until driven away by various incantations, are liable to do much harm to the fruit. The Italians, again, affirm that in each leaf of the fig-tree an evil spirit dwells; and throughout the Continent there are various other demons who are believed to haunt the crops. Evil spirits were once said to lurk in lettuce-beds, and a certain species was regarded with ill favour by mothers, a circumstance which, Mr. Folkard rightly suggests, may account for a Surrey saying, “O’er much lettuce in the garden will stop a young wife’s bearing.” Among similar legends of the kind it is said that, in Swabia, fern-seed brought by the devil between eleven and twelve o’clock on Christmas night enables the bearer to do as much work as twenty or thirty ordinary men. According to a popular piece of superstition current in our southern counties, the devil is generally supposed to put his cloven foot upon the blackberries on Michaelmas Day, and hence after this date it is considered unlucky to gather them during the remainder of the year. An interesting instance of this superstition is given by Mrs. Latham in her “West Sussex Superstitions,” which happened to a farmer’s wife residing in the neighbourhood of Arundel. It appears that she was in the habit of making a large quantity of blackberry jam, and finding that less fruit had been brought to her than she required, she said to the charwoman, “I wish you would send some of your children to gather me three or four pints more.” “Ma’am,” exclaimed the woman in astonishment, “don’t you know this is the 11th October?” “Yes,” she replied. “Bless me, ma’am! And you ask me to let my children go out blackberrying! Why, I thought every one knew that the devil went round on the 10th October, and spat on all the blackberries, and that if any person were to eat on the 11th, he or some one belonging to him would either die or fall into great trouble before the year was out.”
In Scotland the devil is said to but throw his cloak over the blackberries and render them unwholesome, while in Ireland he is said to stamp on them. Among further stories of this kind may be quoted one current in Devonshire respecting St. Dunstan, who, it is said, bought up a quantity of barley for brewing beer. The devil, knowing how anxious the saint would be to get a good sale for his beer, offered to blight the apple trees, so that there should be no cider, and hence a greater demand for beer, on condition that he sold himself to him. St. Dunstan accepted the offer, and stipulated that the trees should be blighted on the 17th, 18th, and 19th May. Should the apple-blossom be nipped by cold winds or frost about this time, many allusions are still made to St. Dunstan.
Of the plants associated personally with the evil one may be mentioned the henbane, which is known in Germany as the “devil’s eye,” a name applied to the stich-wort in Wales. A species of ground moss is also styled in Germany the “devil’s claws;” one of the orchid tribe is “Satan’s hand;” the lady’s fingers is “devil’s claws,” and the plantain is “devil’s head.” Similarly the house-leek has been designated the “devil’s beard,” and a Norfolk name for the stinkhorn is “devil’s horn.” Of further plants related to his Satanic majesty is the clematis, termed “devil’s thread,” the toad-flax is his ribbon, the indigo his dye, while the scandix forms his darning-needles. The tritoma, with its brilliant red blossom, is familiar in most localities as the “devil’s poker,” and the ground ivy has been nicknamed the “devil’s candlestick,” the mandrake supplying his candle. The puff-balls of the lycoperdon form the devil’s snuff-box, and in Ireland the nettle is his apron, and the convolvulus his garter; while at Iserlohn, in Germany, “the mothers, to deter their children eating the mulberries, sing to them that the devil requires them for the purpose of blacking his boots.” The _Arum maculatum_ is “devil’s ladies and gentlemen,” and the _Ranunculus arvensis_ is the “devil on both sides.” The vegetable kingdom also has been equally mindful of his majesty’s food, the spurge having long been named “devil’s milk” and the briony the “devil’s cherry.” A species of fungus, known with us as “witches’ butter,” is called in Sweden “devil’s butter,” while one of the popular names for the mandrake is “devil’s food.” The hare-parsley supplies him with oatmeal, and the stichwort is termed in the West of England “devil’s corn.” Among further plants associated with his Satanic majesty may be enumerated the garden fennel, or love-in-a-mist, to which the name of “devil-in-a-bush” has been applied, while the fruit of the deadly nightshade is commonly designated “devil’s berries.” Then there is the “devil’s tree,” and the “devil’s dung” is one of the nicknames of the assafoetida. The hawk-weed, like the scabious, was termed “devil’s bit,” because the root looks as if it had been bitten off. According to an old legend, “the root was once longer, until the devil bit away the rest for spite, for he needed it not to make him sweat who is always tormented with fear of the day of judgment.” Gerarde further adds that, “The devil did bite it for envy, because it is an herb that hath so many great virtues, and is so beneficial to mankind.” A species of ranunculus supplies his coach-wheels, and in some parts of the country ferns are said to supply his brushes. His majesty’s wants, therefore, have been amply provided for by the vegetable kingdom, for even the wild garlic affords him a posy. Once more, in Sweden, a rose-coloured flower, known as “Our Lady’s hand,” “has two roots like hands, one white, the other black, and when both are placed in water the black one will sink, this is called ‘Satan’s hand;’ but the white one, called ‘Mary’s hand,’ will float.” Hence this flower is held in deep and superstitious veneration among the peasantry; and in Crete the basil is considered an emblem of the devil, and is placed on most window-ledges, no doubt as a charm.
Some plants, again, have been used for exorcism from their reputed antagonism to all Satanic influence. Thus the avens or herb-bennett, when kept in a house, was believed to render the devil powerless, and the Greeks of old were in the habit of placing a laurel bough over their doorways to keep away evil spirits. The thistle has been long in demand for counteracting the powers of darkness, and in Esthonia it is placed on the ripening corn to drive and scare away malignant demons. In Poland, the disease known among the poorer classes as “elf-lock” is supposed to be the work of wicked spirits, but tradition says it will gradually disappear if one buries thistle seed. The aloe, by the Egyptians, is reputed to resist any baleful influence, and the lunary or “honesty” is by our own country people said to put every evil influence to flight. In Germany the juniper disperses evil spirits, and in ancient times the black hellebore, peony, and mugwort were largely used for this purpose. According to a Russian belief the elder-tree drives away evil spirits, and hence this plant is held in high respect. Among further plants possessing the same quality are the nettle and milfoil, and then there is the famous St. John’s wort, popularly nicknamed “devil’s flight.”
Closely allied with this part of our subject are those plants connected with serpents, here forming a very numerous class. Indeed, it was only natural that our ancestors, from their dread of the serpent on account of its poisonous sting, as well as from their antipathy to it as the symbol of evil, should ascertain those plants which seemed either attractive, or antagonistic, to this much-dreaded reptile. Accordingly certain plants, from being supposed to be distasteful to serpents, were much used as amulets to drive them away. Foremost among these may be mentioned the ash, to escape contact with which a serpent, it has been said, would even creep into the fire, in allusion to which Cowley thus writes:
“But that which gave more wonder than the rest,
Within an ash a serpent built her nest
And laid her eggs, when once to come beneath
The very shadow of an ash was death.”
Gerarde notices this curious belief, and tells us that, “the leaves of this tree are so great virtue against serpents that they dare not so much as touch the morning and evening shadows of the tree, but shun them afar off.”
Hence ash-sap was a German remedy for serpent bites. Lucan, in his “Pharsalia” (915-921), has enumerated some of the plants burned for the purpose of expelling serpents:
“Beyond the farthest tents rich fires they build,
That healthy medicinal odours yield,
There foreign galbanum dissolving fries,
And crackling flames from humble wallwort rise.
There tamarisk, which no green leaf adorns,
And there the spicy Syrian costos burns;
There centaury supplies the wholesome flame,
That from Therssalian Chiron takes its name;
The gummy larch tree, and the thapsos there,
Woundwort and maidenweed perfume the air,
There the long branches of the long-lived hart
With southernwood their odours strong impart,
The monsters of the land, the serpents fell,
Fly far away and shun the hostile smell.”
The smoke of the juniper was equally repellent to serpents, and the juice of dittany “drives away venomous beasts, and doth astonish them.” In olden times, for serpent bites, agrimony, chamomile, and the fruit of the bramble, were held efficacious, and Gerarde recommends the root of the bugloss, “as it keepeth such from being stung as have drunk it before; the leaves and seeds do the same.” On the other hand, some plants had the reputation of attracting serpents, one of these being the moneywort or creeping loosestrife, with which they were said to heal themselves when wounded. As far back as the time of Pliny serpents were supposed to be very fond of fennel, restoring to them their youth by enabling them to cast their old skins. There is a belief in Thuringia that the possession of fern seed causes the bearer to be pursued by serpents till thrown away; and, according to a curious Eussian proverb, “from all old trees proceeds either an owl or a devil,” in reference, no doubt, to their often bare and sterile appearance.
1. See Tylor’s “Primitive Culture,” ii. 316.
2. Thorpe’s “Northern Mythology,” iii. 193.
3. “Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics,” p. 486.
4. Mr. Conway, _Fraser’s Magazine_, 1870, p. 593.
5. Mr. Conway, _Fraser’s Magazine_, 1870, p. 107.
6. “Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics,” p. 411.
7. Folkard’s “Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics,” p. 448.
8. See Friend’s “Flower-lore,” i. 68.
9. Thorpe’s “Northern Mythology,” ii. 104.
10. “Mystic Trees and Flowers,” Fraser’s Magazine.