Myth and Magic EP 14 — Fantasy Writers Kitbag — Episode 14 SHOW-NOTES

Folklore and fantasy themes aimed at creative writers: to start writing stories and challenge your brain with exciting ideas, dip into this kit-bag. Learn how fantasy worlds draw on real world history, mythology, and folklore. And there’s weekly news from the world of fantasy fiction too, plus fabulous creatures, studies on folk tales, nature fables and lots more mythical, magical fun.

CLICK HERE for >>> Episode Fifteen: 28M

This week I seek the definition of a wizard. I examine the origin of Merlin and see how he is curiously connected with all later wizards — both imaginary and real — from Faust to Nostradamus, to Doctor John Dee and Sir Edward Kelley — and onto Gandalf, Dumbledore, The Doctor (Who) and even Obi-Wan Kenobi. Also in this episode look at The Staffordshire Hoard and see how this discovery might explain dragon gold.

Edward Kelly

The Greatest Wizards

During Halloween week one of the guys I follow on twitter asked her followers to share their favourite wizards. Although Gandalf came up a few times, on the whole most of the characters on the list (there were hundreds of replies, by the way) were witches. But what’s the difference between a witch and a wizard?

In the famous 1960s TV show “Bewitched” male “witches” are described as warlocks. So why not describe them as wizards? Why is Harry Potter a witch, rather than a wizard? Before you write to remind me that Hogwarts is a school for witchcraft and wizardry let me give you (one) good & reliable definition of what a wizard is: Think of Gandalf, who was a member of the Istari i.e. The “Wise Ones” > Here’s the definition I use: a wizard is wandering being who resembles a human man but possesses far greater physical and mental power.

Do Harry and his friends have great physical and mental powers? Are they men? Are they wanderers? Or are they they (special) humans who work on perfecting their witchcraft & potions?

MERLIN of the Arthurian legends is probably the first wizard to be mentioned in poetry and text and could, actually, be the one-and-only true wizard… I’ll come to that later.

Myrddin Wyllt ( Merlin the Wild ) a Welsh bard, was first mentioned as early as 573 in writings, This curious old poet is said to have lived in the deep forest, he lived like a wild-man, with the animals, and it’s said he’d been blessed with the gift of prophecy. Myrddin was mentioned in the The Annals of Wales, a primary source of history about King Arthur. And it’s important at this point to underline the fact that Merlin (and Arthur) if they ever existed at all, must have existed long before the medieval period that we often associate with these characters. In other words, long before knights rode around in armour and performed chivalric deeds. These earliest tales of Myrddin are Roman or (probably) pre-Roman in origin. Our notions of Knights in shining Armour and damsels locked away in towers come (mainly) from Tennyson’s writings… which I’ll turn to later.

Myrddin’s legend closely resembles that of another north-British figure called Lailoken (LAYLE OCKEN ) which appears in Jocelyn of Furness’ 12th-century Life of Kentigern, an important founder of the post-Roman church in Strathclyde, who was said to have died in 612. Lailoken was said to have been a wild-man who lived in the Caledonian Forest, in the ancient Kingdom of Strathclyde and there have been (later) claims that Lailoken was also known as Merlynum (MER LI NUMB) – coincidental? And there’s a famous poem titled “The Conversation of Merlin and his twin sister Gwendydd” where she refers to Merlin by the pet name: Llallogan (Clagh Loghh An ) is this the same word as LAYLE OCKEN? In Welsh this word means: brother, friend and also (curiously) TWIN-LIKE which makes sense because he’s her twin… or is she referring to another twin?

Myrddin Wyllt

Myrddin Wyllt – with the Lady of the Lake or with Gwendydd?

A ninth century Welsh monk named NENNIUS wrote a “History of the Britons” in about year 828 and this was the first source to mention a military leader named Arthur, and academics point out this this work is probably the only historical basis for the knowledge of King Arthur that we have today. His history includes reference to a wizard.

But the more modern depiction of a Merlin character that we might recognize as the first great wizard comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth and his book Prophetiae Merlini – very much inspired by the “History of the Britons”. This tended to be a collection of the prophecies made by the Welsh figure of Myrddin (MERRH THIN) whom Geoffrey called Merlin. Like the history by the monk NENNIUS before, this was written in Latin. The book became “published” around 1130. Geoffrey of Monmouth (born, himself, around 1090) suggested that his book is based on old Brittonic tales, some of them passed down by word of mouth, as well as the accounts of the monk Nennius. One story of Myrddin’s prophetic talents tells the tale of how a King asked the wizard to interpret the meaning of a vision he’d had. Two dragons fought, one red and one white. Merlin explained that the Red Dragon was the British race, the White Dragon was the Saxons. The Saxons would win. This was an accurate prophecy.

It’s not know why Geoffrey of Monmouth changed the spelling of Myrddin (MERRH THIN) into “Merlin” in his Prophetiae Merlini but it’s possible (as a French speaking Norman) that he didn’t like the original name to be associated with the vulgar french word “merde” even though the text he used was largely Latin. If you don’t know what MERDE means, by the way, I’ll leave it to you to look up!

Prophetiae Merlini

Prophetiae Merlini

Tales such as “Culhwch and Olwen” and “The Dream of Rhonabwy” found within the The Mabinogion and are the earliest prose stories of Britain. The stories were composed in Middle Welsh in about the 12th–13th centuries and were taken from earlier oral traditions and have interested scholars ever since those early dates because they preserve the oldest traditions of King Arthur and, therefore, the figure Merlin. These works inspired later writers.

But it’s really Thomas Malory’s late 15th-century prose “Le Morte D’arthur” that brings us the glamour and adventure we normally associate with the Arthurian legends and the highly-dramatized account of the Wizard Merlin… brought to us as a character who begins as a wild-man of the forest and ends up advising Uther Pendragon (Arthur’s father) and eventually becoming the prophet of the Holy Grail and who is later tragically fascinated by the mysterious Lady of the Lake who entombs him (forever) inside the trunk of a hawthorn tree.

Witches' Tree by Edward Burne-Jones (1905)

Witches’ Tree by Edward Burne-Jones (1905)

It’s not known how much of Malory’s work influenced (if at all) the French astrologer, physician and wandering clairvoyant, Nostradamus (1503-1566 ) who was a man of science and religion yet dabbled in horoscopes, necromancy, scrying, and good luck charms (such as the hawthorn rod that he used as a wand). He’s famous for his long-term predictions, and you’ve no doubt heard of his world famous Almanacs. He was very much influenced by Chaldean and Assyrian magic which went back hundreds of years to the very earliest civilizations, and, if you met him, you’d have to describe him as “a wizard” i.e. he had a black cloak, black hat, long white beard. In addition to his almanacs, he also published books on potions. Is he another embodiment of Merlin?

A little after Nostradamus, the sixteenth century advisor to Queen Elizabeth 1st JOHN DEE ( you might have heard of him, too) was a wandering philosopher, alchemist and spy-master and one of the Queen’s favourites. Of Welsh descent his family claimed to come from Welsh royal blood. (coincidence?) When Elizabeth took to the throne in 1558, Dee became her most trusted advisor on astrological and scientific matters, choosing Elizabeth’s coronation date for her (for example.) DEE is known to have attempted to contact the spirit-world using a “scryer” or crystal-gazer, and took a great interest in the tales of Merlin, and used Arthurian legend to help promote an enlarging ‘British empire’ abroad. As he became more involved in occult practices, he drifted further from the church and science, and into the occult. It’s understood that he considered himself able to communicate with angels/demons. He was happy to claim he was a “new” Merlin.

A contemporary of his, Sir Edward Kelly, was also able to summon spirits or angels in a “shew-stone” or magic mirror and he allegedly knew the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone. I have added an engraving of Kelly into the show-notes (top of the page) because I wanted you to see that this guy is every-inch what you and I would describe as a Wizard in the Merlin tradition.

Both these wizards — DEE and KELLY — seem to have based many of their ideas on the works of the German Renaissance itinerant alchemist, astrologer and magician known (in English) as John Faustus. Many of Faust’s magical tales were sold and re-hashed in what was known as chapbooks back in the 16th century, these were a type of cheap street literature printed for the consumption of ordinary folk as small, paper-covered booklets, kind of the first ever “Penny Dreadfuls.” Nevertheless, DEE and KELLY were influenced by Dr. Faust who lived in Bavaria in around 1480 and was described as a philosopher, alchemist, magician and astrologer. He died in an explosion after an alchemical experiment went wrong, in about 1541. There are several grimoires or magical texts attributed to Dr. Faust. Presumably, some of these spell-books were owned by Dee and Kelly. Is he also a Merlin figure?

Dr Faustus

Dr Faustus

The Tudor playwright Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Dee and Kelly, portrayed Faust as the archetypal adept of Renaissance magic in “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus” from about 1590. A 1620 woodcut illustration of Doctor Faustus (above) shows him to resemble a “customary” wizard, book in one hand, long staff in the other (no doubt made of hawthorn) and standing inside a protective circle wearing a magicians hat and fur-trimmed cloak… with a long white beard and white hair.

Much later, English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892; Poet Laureate from 1850, re-told the stories of King Arthur and the tales of his fatal love for Guinevere and the stories of the Knights of the Round Table in the 12 cyclical poems that made up the “Idylls of the King” published 1859 and 1885. These are a very Mid-Victorian read and tend to study the embodiment of the ideal Victorian “male” hero (the Prince Albert type father figure) and also contain explicit references to Gothic interiors, as well as Romantic appreciations of nature, and society’s growing anxiety about changing gender roles. The poems also tell of Merlin and the Lady of the Lake. Tennyson based these writings on the works of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and the 13th century Mabinogion.

Is this figure… the eternal material body of Merlin, and also the fictional character-image of Gandalf, perhaps even Obi-Wan Kenobi and Dr. Who, and certainly Albus Dumbledore who “knows pretty much everything” … are all these figures the same person?

Are all these eccentric wanderers and learned beings (beings that resemble human men but possess far greater physical and mental powers) these alchemists, philosophers and wise-men… are they all reincarnations of the once and future MERLIN?

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CLICK HERE to listen to >>> Episode Fourteen of MYTH & MAGIC 28M

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Myth and Magic EP1 — Fantasy Writers Kitbag — Episode 1 SHOW-NOTES

Myth and Magic Episode 1 — Fantasy Writers Kitbag —
Episode 1 SHOW-NOTES

NEIL MACH

Folklore and fantasy themes aimed at creative writers: to start writing stories and challenge your brain with exciting ideas, dip into this kit-bag. Learn how fantasy worlds draw on real world history, mythology, and folklore. And there’s weekly news from the world of fantasy fiction too, plus fabulous creatures, studies on folk tales, nature fables and lots more mythical, magical fun.

CLICK HERE for >>> Episode One : 31m:25s
Tolkein’s Black Country, Godiva, Zee, St John’s Wort, Anansi, Confabultion

VISIT TO THE BLACK COUNTRY

Black by day, red by night

I’ve just returned from a trip to the West Midlands where I stopped in the “The Black Country.” I went up there to visit the Black Sabbath exhibition in Britain’s “second city” Birmingham. Some of you might know that Ozzy and Black Sabbath come from the Wolverhampton and Birmingham area but that’s a whole other story.

During the Industrial Revolution, this area became one of the most industrialized parts of Great Britain with coal mines, coking works, iron foundries, glass factories, brick works and steel mills.

Metalworking and coal-mining had been going on since medieval times but became highly developed during the mid-18th century.

The “Capital of the Black Country” Wolverhampton, and Bilston (where I stayed during my visit) and also Wednesfield (pronounced Wencefield) are all mentioned in Anglo-Saxon charters and chronicles. The Saxons migrated to the British Isles during the 5th century and brought their customs with them, especially their notion of kinship*. They were converted to Christianity in about: 590–660

The name Wednesfield derives from the old English: Wōdnesfeld that means Woden’s Field.

He’s normally portrayed as a long-bearded old man wearing a cloak and a broad hat. The old Irish believed he was a “seer and a prophet…” He’s Mr. Wednesday (played by Ian McShane ) in the TV adaption of Neil Gaiman’sAmerican Gods.” [Anansi the “spider” is also mentioned in the same novel!]

Woden in his guise as a wanderer Georg von Rosen

Woden in his guise as a wanderer – by Georg von Rosen

Wōden is an old Norse God associated with wisdom, healing, sorcery and knowledge

The reason you might find this interesting is because several characters from J. R. R. Tolkien’s fiction were inspired by this figure The appearance of the wizard Gandalf was particularly inspired his “wanderer” guise.

TOLKIEN lived in Kings Heath ( a suburb of Birmingham) with his grandparents in 1895 and later moved to the quiet hamlet of Sarehole on the outskirts of the Black Country, where he lived as a child in the 1890s. The area probably influenced his description of THE SHIRE.

It is claimed that Tolkein’s Mordor is influenced by his knowledge of the Black Country (in the Elvish Sindarin language, Mor-Dor means Dark (or Blackened) Land…) i.e. Black Country!

His character named Bilbo Baggins might have been based on an observation of the Mayor of the Bilston ( the town where I stayed during my visit last week.) Intriguingly, the Mayor that Tolkein knew was named: Ben Bilboe

To read more about Tolkein’s Birmingham here: https://www.birmingham.gov.uk/tolkien

* It’s a coincidence that Tolkein’s ancestors were probably of Saxon origin: hence the name derives from Tolk’s Kin although he was born in what is now South Africa.

 

BANBURY / COVENTRY

Banbury Cross

What’s the Difference between the Fine Lady of Banbury and Lady Godiva?

On my trip to the Black Country by National Express coaches, we stopped off to pick up customers at Banbury and, later, Coventry. And it got me wondering what the differences are/were between these two horseback ladies…

Banbury had many crosses (the High Cross, the Bread Cross and the White Cross), but these were destroyed by Puritans in 1600. Banbury remained without a cross for more than 250 years until the current Banbury Cross was erected in 1859 [shown above photo credit: Jongleur100]

It’s thought the nursery rhyme (Roud Folk Song Index 21143 )
attached to the town is a folk-memory of this “period without crosses.”

Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse;
Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
And she shall have music wherever she goes

A cock horse might mean a high-spirited horse, or riding the horse that’s pulling the cart, or, as told to my by my riding instructor, it just means riding side-saddle.

The fine lady can been associated with Queen Elizabeth I, Lady Godiva (who I will turn to in a moment) or a 17th century socialite named Celia Fiennes who traveled England riding sidesaddle on horseback between 1684 and about 1703 in a period when lone female travelling, especially on horseback, was unheard of. Her travel notes became an (unpublished) memoir.

Fiennes saw many of the finest baroque English country houses while they were still being constructed and before the idea of “stately homes” was a thing.

Lady Godiva was the Countess of Mercia in the eleventh century. According to a legend she rode her horse naked  through the streets of Coventry to gain a remission of the oppressive taxation that her husband imposed on his tenants.

According to legend, just one person in the town viewed her naked ride, a tailor known as Peeping Tom.

The nakedness might be an allusion to Godiva’s penitential journey. The custom of the time was for penitents to make a public procession in a shift, (a sleeveless white garment similar to a slip) a very wispy garment considered to be “underwear”: thus, to all intents and purposes: Naked.

The dogma of the time taught that after atonement was complete any previous sin was no longer present on the sinner’s soul so they could continue life “in grace.”

Those familiar with the “Game of Thrones” (season five) will know that Cersei Lannister was forced to walk naked through the streets of King’s Landing as atonement. This part of the tale was perhaps influenced by the Lady Godiva story.

There are several artistic interpretations of Godiva, my favorite (though it’s a bit chocolate boxy) is John Collier’s Lady Godiva [shown below] now held in the Herbert art gallery, Coventry.

Lady Godiva by John Collier - Herbert art gallery, Coventry

Lady Godiva by John Collier – Herbert art gallery, Coventry

 

TADE THOMPSON

Tade Thompson

Tade Thompson

Last week TADE THOMPSON, a British-born Yoruba writer, became only the second writer of black African heritage to win the Arthur C Clarke award for science fiction.

Three out of this year’s six shortlisted titles were by writers of color, a reflection of the fact that some of today’s most exciting SF and fantasy writing comes from non-white authors

Tade Thompson’s Rosewater Part One of his Wormwood Trilogy set in a future Nigeria after alien “meteors” ave wiped out the USA and UK.

The book also won the Nommo Award from the African Speculative Fiction Society

http://www.africansfs.com/nommos

And, incidentally, a NOMMO is an ancestral spirit important to the Dogon people of Mali

NOMMO is a Dogon word meaning “to make one drink.”
Nommos are described as amphibious, hermaphroditic, fish-like creatures (hence the odd logo of the Nommo awards, see below)

African Speculative Fiction Society

African Speculative Fiction Society

Nommo was the first living creature created by the sky god AMMA At that stage I picture it to be something like a Mudskipper, but according to legend Nommo underwent a transformation and multiplied into four pairs of twins. One of the twins rebelled against the universal order which meant that AMMA had to sacrifice the “other” twin to restore balance and order. This “innocent” twin was dismembered and scattered through the universe.

The main character is Kaaro, he’s a “sensitive” that works for a government agency. Sensitives are able to enter the “xenosphere”, which is a mysterious alternate space where sensitives can meet each other, manipulate their appearance, and interact with one another. The world-building is excellent, with many ideas being “drip fed” into the mind of the reader.

MIDSOMMAR

Midsommar has also been in the news. With cinema goers asking how “real” the rituals are…

The 2019 folk horror film written and directed by Ari Aster is about solstice ritual. Set in a place called Hälsingland in central Sweden (but filmed in Hungary) Hälsingland was first described by the English poet Widsith in 1072 in his The Traveler’s Song (found in the Exeter Book.)

It’s likely that the summer solstice has been celebrated since the Stone Age

Mostly, in the British Isles, the midsummer observances have centered around “staying up all night” and keeping a bonfire alive on the Eve of St. John the Baptist and/or St. Peter’s Day to celebrate and rejoice in the “light of the world.”

A 13th-century monk (in Winchcomb, Gloucestershire) suggested that youths collected bones to burn. The bonfires, or Saint John’s Fires, explained the monk, were to drive away dragons, which were abroad on St. John’s Eve, poisoning springs and wells.

The parish church at Barnwell in the Nene Valley, said that parish youth would gather on the day to sing songs and play games served to repel witches and evil spirits. Midsummer was also a popular day for infant baptisms in the 19th century

The Cornish “Golowan Festival” possibly harkens back to Druid superstition and includes a dangerous “serpent dance.”

Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was probably influenced by the middle-German “wild man” tale of Der Busant. (The buzzard)

In Sweden Midsummer’s Eve is a de facto public holiday in Sweden with offices and many shops closed. Like in Norway and Finland, it is believed that if a girl picks seven different flowers in silence on midsummer night and puts them under her pillow, she will dream of her future husband.

Solstice is derived from the Latin words sol (Sun) and sistere (to stand still)

At summer solstice at Stonehenge an observer standing within the stone circle, looking northeast through the entrance, would see the Sun rise in the approximate direction of the heel stone

Let me know if you have any interesting midsummer rituals or observances in your area or you can confirm or deny any of the information I have presented here.

 

ZEE

All creation is part of a great energy, everything is worthy of respect, and all matter is connected through an unseen energy, think of it as the lifeblood of the universe. Some may know it as Godhead (the substance of God rather than the actual figure) and it’s an energy we can all tune into and use it through prayer and meditation.

This life force is known as: prana, chi, energy, earth energy, or the ether…

Perhaps, just as the blood in our bodies permeates every body of the flesh, but connects via the veins, this life force energy is concentrated in the ley lines, or the paths of the feng shui dragon.

According to Patrinella Cooper in her Romany book of charms, herbs and fortune-telling, the first step on the path to performing any magic is to recognize and harness to power of Zee.

These energy currents are known by most cultures across the world by various names but the Romani word for this life-force is: mi douvals zee … or just ZEE

 

CONFABULATION

CONFABULATION is a memory error defined as the production of fabricated, distorted, or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive

CONFABULISTS are very confident about their recollections, despite evidence to the contrary

NOTE: It’s not LYING because there’s no intent to deceive and the person is unaware that their information is false

Most cases of confabulation are due to brain damage, dementias or toxidrome caused by hallucinogenic drugs

There is a good theory that says CONFABULATION is useful for memory-disabled people to maintain their self-identity

If there are two memory processes: (verbatim and gist) and GIST processes representations of an event’s semantic features rather than its surface details (the details being the verbatim processes)

Most people process and store verbatim and gist information (memories) in parallel with equal credence given to both. But it’s feasible that some RECOLLECTORS or WITNESSES are stronger in Gist than they are, perhaps, with verbatim. And vice versa. We have this in my house. I tend to recollect the flavour and mood of an event while my wife remembers the miniscule details. And it is irritating (to me) that she doesn’t remember the spirit or feeling of a HAPPENING but I’m sure it’s equally v (to her) that I don’t remember times and places and, more especially, peoples names.

Studies show that verbatim memory declines between early and late adulthood, while gist memory remains fairly stable into old age.

Psychological researchers have noted that Schizophrenic patients tend to make up delusions on the spot which often become fantastic and perhaps increasingly elaborate with questioning

 

ANANSI

Anansi

Anansi in my hallway

Last Sunday a house-spider spun a web across my hallway (a much used passageway) between the time my wife went through the hall to get out of the front door and I had finished my morning coffee. I guess it took 20–30 minutes to build and I have a picture of the web and spider which I shared on Instagram [above]

This creature has prompted me to think about ANANSI.

ANANSI takes the shape of a spider and is considered to be the spirit of all knowledge in stories. So he’s an important “medium” for people like us… for storytellers.

He takes the role of trickster, he is also one of the most important characters of West African, African American and Caribbean folklore… although I first came across him when researching the Leni Lenape or Delaware people, the indigenous people of the Northeastern Woodlands, who live in Canada and the North Eastern United States. Incidentally, Lenni Lenapi literally translates as: ”The Original Men/Man”

Anansi stories were part of an exclusively oral tradition, and Anansi himself was seen as synonymous with skill and wisdom in speech * … could he spin a story in just 30 minutes?

Anansi is often celebrated as a symbol of slave resistance and survival, because Anansi is able to turn the tables on his powerful oppressors by using cunning and trickery…

As the creation narrative goes: there were no stories in the world. The Sky-Father, Nyame held them all in a giant box. Anansi liked the world, but without stories he thought it was boring, so he went to Nyame and asked if he could buy them. All the stories. The Sky-Father set a high price, so high he thought the stories were safe. But, in a series of adventures, Anansi won them all.

You might think that Anansi shares similarities with the trickster figure of Br’er Rabbit, through the stories shared by Joel Chandler Harris and his Uncle Remus narratives.

When I was a child, at school, we were made to read Br’er Rabbit stories. At the time the teachers and establishment didn’t think they might be racist or patronizing… and although Joel Chandler Harris’s stories tend to convey demeaning stereotypes, his aim (I think) was to accurately recount the tales he heard from slaves when he worked (himself) on the plantations as a young man. In that respect, he might be forgiven perhaps, for preserving an oral folklore that might have been lost. One such tale is the story of the tar-baby:

A tar-baby is a doll made of tar and turpentine and it’s used by the villainous Br’er Fox to entrap Br’er Rabbit. In the West African version, though, it’s Anansi who creates a wooden doll and covers it with gum, then puts a plate of yams in its lap… in order to capture the elf known as Mmoatia. The elf takes the bait, eats a yam, a strikes out at the tear-baby to get a response, and that’s when it gets stuck fast. It makes more sense that a sticky trap is set by a trickster spider than by a Fox, doesn’t it?

I’m aware that some will consider the tar-baby a metaphor or “racial slur” which is why I prefer the Anansi story and did not chat about this on the show.

* Another coincidence : As a child, JRR Tolkien was bitten by a spider. Was this Anansi giving him the skills to spin a story?

 

ST JOHN’S WORT

My St Johns Wort

My St Johns Wort

Many of you will know that I am an enthusiastic gardener here by the River Thames in Surrey. This week I purchased and planted two rare Hypericums. ST JOHN’S WORT. I already have one large bush and it’s so reliable and so golden-yellow that I decided to get two more.

This isn’t a gardening show so I won’t bother you with the special strains of ST JOHNS WORT I planted (but if you’re really interested, tweet or email me and I can let you know what I planted) but this is a myth and magic show and so I wanted to tell you about ST JOHN’S WORT and why it is famously associated with repelling ghosts and evil spirits.

You’ll see the yellowish shrubs with their bright-yellow rose-like flowers in concrete tubs and traffic islands all over the UK. They are so often used in modern landscaping because they are hardy and put up with all kinds of pollution and mishandling. But they are also considered, by some farmers and gardeners, as invasive pest weeds and its true than can poison cattle and livestock. Oddly, some of the plant’s leaves contain what look spots are around the veins (these spots are actually glands) and a proportion of these contain a red secretion that can stain hands and clothes. The flowers are at their best and brightest around Saints John and Paul’s Day that’s 26th June. This is not St. John the apostle by the way. Legend has it that those two saints were beheaded and the plant-leaves contain John’s blood. Although St John (the Baptist) has his feast day on June 24th and because this marks Midsummer and St Johns Wort was commonly harvested at that time, I suspect the two JOHNS are interchangeable. The herb was hung over pictures or icons of saints in houses at Midsummer… thus, the Latin name “Hyper” means OVER and eikon means picture.

Common Saint John’s wort has long been used in folk medicine to treat depression. The red oily extract was used by the Knights Hospitaller, the Order of St John, after battles, and probably has antibiotic properties.

The herb was once enthusiastically grown in Black Country gardens to ward off evil. The folk belief was that these plants “work” like a lucky horseshoe or making a cross on a loaf of bread, they just do it without bother. Even if you don’t believe in their magical properties, what’s to lose? You may as well plant one, enjoy the buttercup flowers, and sleep peacefully.

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