CHAPTER 7 – PLANTS IN FAIRY-LORE.
Many plants have gained a notoriety from their connection with fairyland, and although the belief in this romantic source of superstition has almost died out, yet it has left its traces in the numerous legends which have survived amongst us. Thus the delicate white flowers of the wood-sorrel are known in Wales as “fairy bells,” from a belief once current that these tiny beings were summoned to their moonlight revels and gambols by these bells. In Ireland they were supposed to ride to their scenes of merrymaking on the ragwort, hence known as the “fairies’ horse.” Cabbage-stalks, too, served them for steeds, and a story is told of a certain farmer who resided at Dundaniel, near Cork, and was considered to be under fairy control. For a long time he suffered from “the falling sickness,” owing to the long journeys which he was forced to make, night by night, with the fairy folk on one of his own cabbage stumps. Sometimes the good people made use of a straw, a blade of grass, or a fern, a further illustration of which is furnished by “The Witch of Fife:”
“The first leet night, quhan the new moon set,
Quhan all was douffe and mirk,
We saddled our naigis wi’ the moon-fern leif,
And rode fra Kilmerrin kirk.
Some horses were of the brume-cow framit,
And some of the greine bay tree;
But mine was made of ane humloke schaw,
And a stour stallion was he.”
In some folk-tales fairies are represented as employing nuts for their mode of conveyance, in allusion to which Shakespeare, in “Romeo and Juliet,” makes Mercutio speak of Queen Mab’s arrival in a nut-shell.
Similarly the fairies selected certain plants for their attire. Although green seems to have been their popular colour, yet the fairies of the moon were often clad in heath-brown or lichen-dyed garments, whence the epithet of “Elfin-grey.” Their petticoats, for instance, were composed of the fox-glove, a flower in demand among Irish fairies for their gloves, and in some parts of that country for their caps, where it is nicknamed “Lusmore,” while the _Cuscuta epithymum_ is known in Jersey as “fairies’ hair.” Their raiment was made of the fairy flax, and the wood-anemone, with its fragile blossoms, was supposed to afford them shelter in wet weather. Shakespeare has represented Ariel reclining in “a cowslip’s bell,” and further speaks of the small crimson drops in its blossom as “gold coats spots”–“these be rubies, fairy favours.” And at the present day the cowslip is still known in Lincolnshire as the “fairy cup.” Its popular German name is “key-flower;” and no flower has had in that country so extensive an association with preternatural wealth. A well-known legend relates how “Bertha” entices some favoured child by exquisite primroses to a doorway overgrown with flowers. This is the door to an enchanted castle. When the key-flower touches it, the door gently opens, and the favoured mortal passes to a room with vessels covered over with primroses, in which are treasures of gold and jewels. When the treasure is secured the primroses must be replaced, otherwise the finder will be for ever followed by a “black dog.”
Sometimes their mantles are made of the gossamer, the cobwebs which may be seen in large quantities on the furze bushes; and so of King Oberon we are told:
“A rich mantle did he wear,
Made of tinsel gossamer,
Bestarred over with a few
Diamond drops of morning dew.”
Tulips are the cradles in which the fairy tribe have lulled their offspring to rest, while the _Pyrus japonica_ serves them for a fire. Their hat is supplied by the _Peziza coccinea_; and in Lincolnshire, writes Mr. Friend, “A kind of fungus like a cup or old-fashioned purse, with small objects inside, is called a fairy-purse.” When mending their clothes, the foxglove gives them thimbles; and many other flowers might be added which are equally in request for their various needs. It should be mentioned, however, that fairies, like witches, have a strange antipathy to yellow flowers, and rarely frequent localities where they grow.
In olden times, we read how in Scandinavia and Germany the rose was under the special protection of dwarfs and elves, who were ruled by the mighty King Laurin, the lord of the rose-garden:
“Four portals to the garden lead, and when the gates are
No living might dare touch a rose, ‘gainst his strict command
Whoe’er would break the golden gates, or cut the silken
Or who would dare to crush the flowers down beneath his
Soon for his pride would have to pledge a foot and hand;
Thus Laurin, king of Dwarfs, rules within his land.”
We may mention here that the beautiful white or yellow flowers that grow on the banks of lakes and rivers in Sweden are called “neck-roses,” memorials of the Neck, a water-elf, and the poisonous root of the water-hemlock was known as neck-root.
In Brittany and in some parts of Ireland the hawthorn, or, as it is popularly designated, the fairy-thorn, is a tree most specially in favour. On this account it is held highly dangerous to gather even a leaf “from certain old and solitary thorns which grow in sheltered hollows of the moorlands,” for these are the trysting-places of the fairy race. A trace of the same superstition existed in Scotland, as may be gathered from the subjoined extract from the “Scottish Statistical Report” of the year 1796, in connection with New parish:–“There is a quick thorn of a very antique appearance, for which the people have a superstitious veneration. They have a mortal dread to lop off or cut any part of it, and affirm with a religious horror that some persons who had the temerity to hurt it, were afterwards severely punished for their sacrilege.”
One flower which, for some reason or other, is still held in special honour by them, is the common stichwort of our country hedges, and which the Devonshire peasant hesitates to pluck lest he should be pixy-led. A similar idea formerly prevailed in the Isle of Man in connection with the St. John’s wort. If any unwary traveller happened, after sunset, to tread on this plant, it was said that a fairy-horse would suddenly appear, and carry him about all night. Wild thyme is another of their favourite plants, and Mr. Folkard notes that in Sicily rosemary is equally beloved; and that “the young fairies, under the guise of snakes, lie concealed under its branches.” According to a Netherlandish belief, the elf-leaf, or sorceresses’ plant, is particularly grateful to them, and therefore ought not to be plucked. The four-leaved clover is a magic talisman which enables its wearer to detect the whereabouts of fairies, and was said only to grow in their haunts; in reference to which belief Lover thus writes:
“I’ll seek a four-leaved clover
In all the fairy dells,
And if I find the charmed leaf,
Oh, how I’ll weave my spells!”
And according to a Danish belief, any one wandering under an elder-bush at twelve o’clock on Midsummer Eve will see the king of fairyland pass by with all his retinue. Fairies’ haunts are mostly in picturesque spots (such as among the tufts of wild thyme); and the oak tree, both here and in Germany, has generally been their favourite abode, and hence the superstitious reverence with which certain trees are held, care being taken not to offend their mysterious inhabitants.
An immense deal of legendary lore has clustered round the so-called fairy-rings–little circles of a brighter green in old pastures–within which the fairies were supposed to dance by night. This curious phenomenon, however, is owing to the outspread propagation of a particular mushroom, the fairy-ringed fungus, by which the ground is manured for a richer following vegetation. Amongst the many other conjectures as to the cause of these verdant circles, some have ascribed them to lightning, and others have maintained that they are produced by ants. In the “Tempest” (v. i) Prospero invokes the fairies as the “demi-puppets” that:
“By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites; and you, whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms.”
And in the “Merry Wives of Windsor” (v. 5) Mistress Quickly says:
“And nightly, meadow-fairies, look, you sing,
Like to the Garter’s compass, in a ring;
The expressure that it bears, green let it be,
More fertile-fresh than all the field to see.”
Drayton, in his “Nymphidia” (1. 69-72), tells how the fairies:
“In their courses make that round,
In meadows and in marshes found,
Of them so called the fayrie ground,
Of which they have the keeping.”
These fairy-rings have long been held in superstitious awe; and when in olden times May-dew was gathered by young ladies to improve their complexion, they carefully avoided even touching the grass within them, for fear of displeasing these little beings, and so losing their personal charms. At the present day, too, the peasant asserts that no sheep nor cattle will browse on the mystic patches, a natural instinct warning them of their peculiar nature. A few miles from Alnwick was a fairy-ring, round which if people ran more than nine times, some evil was supposed to befall them. It is generally agreed that fairies were extremely fond of dancing around oaks, and thus in addressing the monarch of the forest a poet has exclaimed:
“The fairies, from their nightly haunt,
In copse or dell, or round the trunk revered
Of Herne’s moon-silvered oak, shall chase away
Each fog, each blight, and dedicate to peace
Thy classic shade.”
In Sweden the miliary fever is said by the peasantry to be caused by the elf-mote or meeting with elves, as a remedy for which the lichen aphosus or lichen caninus is sought.
The toadstools often found near these so-called fairy-rings were also thought to be their workmanship, and in some localities are styled pixy-stools, and in the North of Wales “fairy-tables,” while the “cheeses,” or fruit of the mallow, are known in the North of England as “fairy-cheeses.”
A species of wood fungus found about the roots of old trees is designated “fairy-butter,” because after rain, and when in a certain degree of putrefaction, it is reduced to a consistency which, together with its colour, makes it not unlike butter. The fairy-butter of the Welsh is a substance found at a great depth in cavities of limestone rocks. Ritson, in his “Fairy Tales,” speaking of the fairies who frequented many parts of Durham, relates how “a woman who had been in their society challenged one of the guests whom she espied in the market selling fairy-butter,” an accusation, however, which was deeply resented.
Browne, in his “Britannia’s Pastorals,” makes the table on which they
feast consist of:
“A little mushroom, that was now grown thinner
By being one time shaven for the dinner.”
Fairies have always been jealous of their rights, and are said to resent any infringement of their privileges, one of these being the property of fruit out of season. Any apples, too, remaining after the crop has been gathered in, they claim as their own; and hence, in the West of England, to ensure their goodwill and friendship, a few stray ones are purposely left on the trees. This may partially perhaps explain the ill-luck of plucking flowers out of season. A Netherlandish piece of folk-lore informs us that certain wicked elves prepare poison in some plants. Hence experienced shepherds are careful not to let their flocks feed after sunset. One of these plants, they say, is nightwort, “which belongs to the elves, and whoever touches it must die.” The disease known in Poland as “elf-lock” is said to be the work of evil fairies or demons, and is cured by burying thistle-seed in the ground. Similarly, in Iceland, says Mr. Conway, “the farmer guards the grass around his field lest the elves abiding in them invade his crops.” Likewise the globe-flower has been designated the troll-flower, from the malignant trolls or elves, on account of its poisonous qualities. On the other hand, the Bavarian peasant has a notion that the elves are very fond of strawberries; and in order that they may be good-humoured and bless his cows with abundance of milk, he is careful to tie a basket of this fruit between the cow’s horns.
Of the many legendary origins of the fairy tribe, there is a popular one abroad that mortals have frequently been transformed into these little beings through “eating of ambrosia or some peculiar kind of herb.” According to a Cornish tradition, the fern is in some mysterious manner connected with the fairies; and a tale is told of a young woman who, when one day listlessly breaking off the fronds of fern as she sat resting by the wayside, was suddenly confronted by a “fairy widower,” who was in search of some one to attend to his little son. She accepted his offer, which was ratified by kissing a fern leaf and repeating this formula:
“For a year and a day
I promise to stay.”
Soon she was an inhabitant of fairyland, and was lost to mortal gaze until she had fulfilled her stipulated engagement.
In Germany we find a race of elves, somewhat like the dwarfs, popularly known as the Wood or Moss people. They are about the same size as children, “grey and old-looking, hairy, and clad in moss.” Their lives, like those of the Hamadryads, are attached to the trees; and “if any one causes by friction the inner bark to loosen a Wood-woman dies.” Their great enemy is the Wild Huntsman, who, driving invisibly through the air, pursues and kills them. On one occasion a peasant, hearing the weird baying in a wood, joined in the cry; but on the following morning he found hanging at his stable door a quarter of a green Moss-woman as his share of the game. As a spell against the Wild Huntsman, the Moss-women sit in the middle of those trees upon which the woodcutter has placed a cross, indicating that they are to be hewn, thereby making sure of their safety. Then, again, there is the old legend which tells how Brandan met a man on the sea, who was, “a thumb long, and floated on a leaf, holding a little bowl in his right hand and a pointer in his left; the pointer he kept dipping into the sea and letting water drop from it into the bowl; when the bowl was full, he emptied it out and began filling it again, his doom consisting in measuring the sea until the judgment-day.” This floating on the leaf is suggestive of ancient Indian myths, and reminds us of Brahma sitting on a lotus and floating across the sea. Vishnu, when, after Brahma’s death, the waters have covered all the worlds, sits in the shape of a tiny infant on a leaf of the fig tree, and floats on the sea of milk sucking the toe of his right foot.
Another tribe of water-fairies are the nixes, who frequently assume the
appearance of beautiful maidens. On fine sunny days they sit on the banks of rivers or lakes, or on the branches of trees, combing and arranging their golden locks:
“Know you the Nixes, gay and fair?
Their eyes are black, and green their hair,
They lurk in sedgy shores.”
A fairy or water-sprite that resides in the neighbourhood of the Orkneys is popularly known as Tangie, so-called from _tang,_, the seaweed with which he is covered. Occasionally he makes his appearance as a little horse, and at other times as a man.
Then there are the wood and forest folk of Germany, spirits inhabiting the forests, who stood in friendly relation to man, but are now so disgusted with the faithless world, that they have retired from it.
Hence their precept–
“Peel no tree,
Relate no dream,
_Pipe_ no bread, _or_
Bake no cumin in bread,
So will God help thee in thy need.”
On one occasion a “forest-wife,” who had just tasted a new baked-loaf, given as an offering, was heard screaming aloud:
“They’ve baken for me cumin bread,
That on this house brings great distress.”
The prosperity of the poor peasant was soon on the wane, and before long he was reduced to abject poverty. These legends, in addition to illustrating the fairy mythology of bygone years, are additionally interesting from their connection with the plants and flowers, most of which are familiar to us from our childhood.
1. See Crofton Croker’s “Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland,” 1862, p. 98.
2. Folkard’s “Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics,” p. 30.
3. Friend, “Flowers and Flower Lore,” p. 34.
4. Thorpe’s “Northern Mythology,” ii. 81-2.
5. Thorpe’s “Northern Mythology,” iii. 266.
6. See “The Phytologist,” 1862, p. 236-8.
7. “Folk-lore of Shakespeare,” p. 15.
8. See Friend’s “Flower Lore,” i. 34.
9. Thorpe’s “Northern Mythology,” iii. 266.
10. Friend’s “Flower Lore,” i. 27.
11. See Keightley’s “Fairy Mythology,” p. 231.
12. Grimm’s “Teut. Myth.,” 1883, ii. 451;
13. “Asiatic Researches,” i. 345.
14. See Keightley’s “Fairy Mythology,” p. 173.
15. Thorpe’s “Northern Mythology,” i. 251-3.