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The Witches' Cauldron

( Originally Published 1933 )

The cuttings and seeds of the herbs were carried from East to West by men in their wanderings, and with the plants came the myths and legends about them. The story about the laurel, said to be of Vedic origin, is here given in its Greek version. Apollo, it seems, fell in love with the nymph Daphne and she, not desiring his attentions, ran away from him. He pursued her and as he was gaining upon her, in her anguish she called upon the Gods to help her. They took pity on her and to protect her from him they changed her into a laurel tree. This trans-formation, however, did not lessen Apollo's love and ever afterwards he wore wreaths made of laurel leaves, and groves of this tree surrounded his temple.

When we read how the herbs have been employed from the earliest times down to the present, we learn what the people have eaten, of their illnesses and how they tried to cure them, of their wounds and infections, their fears and superstitions, and altogether we follow the intimate and personal side of history.

Through necessity primitive people had to know the medicinal qualities of plants. Even to-day the American Indians heal the sick with herbs; for example, maidenhair fern, Adiantum pedatum, is taken as an emetic, black snakeroot, Cimicifuga racemosa, as an antidote for snake bite, and American pennyroyal, Hedeoma pulegioides, for colic and colds.

Much of the early herb lore was empiric, but a large portion of it had no other basis than superstition. A strange, but quite comprehensible, reason for attributing certain qualities to the herbs was their physical appearance. Rupturewort, Herniaria, was expected to cure ruptures because of its knot-like flowers, while throatwort, Campanula trachelium, with its throat-like corolla, was thought to be healing for diseases of the trachea. This was the "Doctrine of Signatures," and Mrs. Arber in her book, "Herbals," quotes an amusing example, relative to this, from a seventeenth century English translation of Paracelsus:

I have ofttimes declared how by outward shapes and qualities of things we know their inward virtues which God put in them for the good of man. So in St. Johnswort, we may take notice of the form of the leaves. The Veins 1. The porosities of the holes in the leaves signify to us that this herb helps both inward and out-ward holes or cuts in the skin. . . . 2. The flowers of St. Johnswort when they are putrefied they are like blood which teacheth us that this herb is good for wounds, to close them and fill them up.

In the convents and monasteries, as well as within the castles' walls, herbs were grown and dried according to the directions of Pliny, Galen, and Dioscorides, but when the flowers in the woods and fields were in blossom the herb women, often considered witches, who knew where to find the plants went out from the villages to pick them. There were traditions as to which day was the best for gathering them, when, for one reason or another, they would be most efficacious. August 15th, the day of the Ascension of the Virgin Mary, was one, and St. John's Day, June 24th, the day of the summer solstice, was another.

There was a superstition that in order to be effective the bunch of herbs should consist of nine different kinds, and often the number, three or nine, was more important than the particular botanical specimen. Various combinations of plants were thought to be potent, and the following in which the initial letters of the herbs spell Johannes, John, or St. John is characteristic:

Jarum—possibly, Carum Carvi, Caraway
Herb benedictu—a valerian
Allium—onion or chives
Nigella—Nigella saliva; fennel flower
Nebelkraut—could not find
Extrementa diaboli—could not find
Succisa—a scabiosa

Some plants were thought to have a benign effect whilst others brought evil in their wake. The salutary plants were southernwood, rosemary (which was effective against witchcraft), lavender (against the evil eye), bracken, ground ivy, maidenhair fern, dill, hyssop, agrimony, and angelica which in Esthonia was rubbed on the body of the person affected by magic to cure him of his "possession." Yellow and green flowers growing in hedgerows were supposed to be especially repugnant to witches.

Other herbs had the opposite effect and were the means of invoking evil spirits. Mrs. Leyel in the "Magic of Herbs," says that the sinister herbs were vervain, betony, yarrow, mugwort, and St. Johns-Wort, this last, according to Paracelsus, used to exorcise them. She writes that it was thought that if coriander, parsley, hemlock, liquid of black poppy, fennel, sandalwood, and henbane were laid in a heap and burnt together they would call forth a whole army of demons.

Although in most garden books there is no sex interest, the herbals have recipes for love potions, and strangely enough most of the visitors to the herb garden ask about these. Southernwood, Artemisia abrotanum, was a favorite erotic herb and it was thought that if a girl put a sprig of it down her back she would marry the first boy she met, or if she placed a sprig of it under her pillow at night, the first man she met in the morning was the one she was to marry. Wagner in his opera "Tristan and Isolde," the story of which is taken from an old Germanic epic, has Isolde give a love potion to Tristan, after which the audience sits through three-quarters of an hour of passionate music until the drink takes effect.

In "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Oberon tells Puck to fetch love-in-idleness which was a name for the pansy, to bewitch Titania:

And maidens call it love-in-idleness.
Fetch me that flower; the herb I shew'd thee once:
The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.

Other herbs are said to have aphrodisiac qualities. The water distilled from the leaves and flowers of myrtle has been used in every country as a love philter, as have the waters of dill and savory, while the essences and the distilled leaves of balm and mint are aphrodisiac, too, which last makes one a little fearful of mint sauce. Beside these, vervain, jasmine, coriander, wild poppy, anemone, purslane, crocus, malefern, periwinkle, lettuce, carrots, and endive are all considered to be of an erotic nature, and Mrs. Leyel says they were often combined with cantharides, a very poisonous aphrodisiac.

Sweet marjoram crowned the brows of young married couples; cumin and rosemary were more for remembrance than to stir the passions. When a swain went to the wars far from home his sweetheart would give him a loaf of bread, or a cup of wine seasoned with cumin to prevent his being untrue to her.

A quotation from "the Gudrunlied," the source of Wagner's "Ring," shows how herb drinks were given to induce forgetfulness, as when Gudrun, telling of her grief for Sigurd, says:

Criemhild brachte
das becher mir
dar den Kalten herben
dass des Grams vergesse.

This means that Criemhild brought Gudrun a cold drink concocted of herbs to cause her to forget her sorrow.

All this sounds remote and childish to us, but even to-day in our scientifically ordered world and in such a sophisticated city as New York, there are shops where powdered herbs are sold, not only for medicine but for "concentration work," love potions and the like.

Herbs were not used, however, entirely in fantastic and romantic ways. In northern countries, before they had rugs, some of them were strewn on the floors of churches and castles for warmth, and so provided a slightly refined version of the bedding of hay in the barn. Lavender, thyme, Accrus calamus, the mints, basils, balm, hyssop, and santolina were used for this, and were called Strewing Herbs. Marjoram was scattered over church floors at funerals for its supposed antiseptic qualities.

Northern people were not finicky about being overcome by the fumes of wine and the wassail was drunk to the sound of music, but the Greeks and Romans wore chap-lets of saffron crocus, parsley, or rue to protect them from inebriation or perhaps to prolong their ability to soberly enjoy their drinking.

Unless we have sojourned in remote portions of Europe or the Orient, those of us who have grown up in cities with modern sewage and plumbing, cannot imagine what life under less hygienic conditions is like, and how important it was to have sweet-smelling plants and stimulating perfumes. In Roman times the theaters were sprinkled with saffron water, and at dinner parties the floors were strewn with rose petals, while rose-scented fountains per-fumed the air. At the religious festivals of the Jews, Greeks, and Romans the sacrificial animals were filled with fragrant unguents to disguise the odor of burning flesh and also to keep the flies and vermin away. Incense is burned in all Oriental and many Occidental churches today during the litany partly for its stimulating and pleasant qualities.

When there were no ice boxes to keep the food fresh, the meats and fish were strongly spiced with herbs to disguise the taste of decomposition, and Pliny tells how the Roman cooks sprinkled coriander and mustard over the meats.

Herbs may not be disinfectants in a modern sense, yet in olden days they were thought to be, and extracts from them were mixed into vinegars as preventatives against infection from the plagues. The famous vinegar of the Four Thieves made during the plague at Marseilles in 1722 was used by the thieves to protect them from contagion when robbing the bodies of the dead. Piesse's "The Art of Perfumery" gives the recipe for it:

Take the tops of common wormwood, Roman wormwood, rosemary, sage, mint, and rue of each 3/4 ounce, lavender flowers 1 ounce, garlic, calamus aromaticus, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg each 1 drachm, camphor ounce, alcohol or brandy 1 ounce, strong vinegar 4 pints. Digest all the materials except the camphor and spirit in a closely covered vessel for fourteen days at summer heat; then express and filter the vinegar produced and add camphor previously dissolved in brandy or spirit.

The dried petals and leaves of the herbs and other fragrant flowers were mixed with fixatives and placed in open jars in rooms where the warmth of the fires in winter caused them to give forth a flower-like fragrance reminiscent of summer, and no doubt were most grateful where plumbing was unknown and closed windows the rule. These potpourris are pleasant in any drawing-room in winter and are much used in England today.

Sometimes the essences from the herbs were diffused through hospitals or homes to dissipate unpleasant odors. One way of doing this is described in the "Toilet of Flora," published in 1775, as follows:

Take a root of angelica, dry it in the oven or before the fire, then bruise it well and infuse it four or five days in white wine vinegar. To make use of it heat a brick red hot and lay the angelica root upon the brick. The vapour that exhales therefrom is a powerful corrective of putrid air. The operation must be repeated several times.

The housewife made her own salves, powders, and cosmetics with herbs, and the recipes for homemade tooth washes, mustache dyes, and toilet waters in the old books sound quaint to us. The ingredients for the following aromatic baths for the feet, from the "Toilet of Flora," would probably all be growing in the herb garden, with the possible exception of juniper berries:

Take four handfuls of pennyroyal, sage, rosemary, three handfuls of angelica and four ounces of juniper berries; boil these ingredients in a sufficient quantity of water and strain off the liquor for use.

Take two pounds of barley, one pound of rice, three pounds of lupines all finely powdered, eight pounds of bran and ten handfuls of borage and violet leaves. Boil these ingredients in a sufficient quantity of water. Nothing cleanses and softens the skin as this bath.

Bees love the herbs and on a warm summer day the herb garden throbs with the sound of their humming. The thyme, lavender, bee balm, balm, marjoram, rosemary, sage, and savory were often planted near beehives to flavor the honey. In ancient days and even now Attic honey from Mount Hymettus is valued for its taste of wild thyme as is the Swiss honey. which greets us at our first breakfast in the Spotless Republic.

The oils from the seeds of the herbs, such as those of sweet cicely, and the oil from the plants of sweet marjoram and of lavender were used to polish the oaken floors and the furniture which must have imparted a spicy scent to the rooms.

Last, and most important of all uses of herbs, is their function as condiments in food and drink. When we study the flavorings of our ancestors we find that we still pre-pare our meals much as they did and that our food has changed as little as human nature itself. The onion, garlic, chives, and shallot have flavored food from Egyptian days, and perhaps earlier; caraway seeds were found in the débris of the lake dwellings of Switzerland, and seeds of coriander in the Egyptian tombs of the Twenty-first Dynasty. Mustard has been a condiment from Brahman times, while mint has gone with lamb, dill with cu-cumbers, horseradish with beef, and sage with roast goose down through the ages.

Scattering poppy seeds on breads and cakes is so old a custom that the directions for making the seeds stick are found in Pliny, who says:

The present-day country people sprinkle it on the upper crust of their bread making it adhere by the yolk of eggs, the under crust being seasoned with parsley to heighten the flavor of the flour.

And speaking of mint, he says it is a stimulant to the appetite and you will not see a husbandman's board in the country but all the meats from one end to the other are seasoned with mint, which sounds as if it might be a description of a present-day dinner in an English inn.

The seeds of fennel flowers, anise, sesame, caraway, and coriander have flavored bread and cake from the earliest days and for hundreds of years and even to-day the Europeans aromatize their beers, ales, and meads with the roots of elecampane and sweet cicely, the flowers and leaves of borage, and the leaves of costmary, worm-wood, thyme, and mint to mention only a few. Rose petals and violet flowers may have been sugared first in Persia, but they can be bought in modern confectioners' shops today.

From time to time new plants were added to the menu, brought home by soldiers and merchants from distant lands. About the year 800 A.D. Charlemagne issued an order to his people to grow certain herbs and vegetables in their gardens, and this shows us what the European gar-dens contained then and for many centuries afterwards.


We desire that they have in the garden all the herbs namely, the lily, roses, fenugreek, costmary, sage, rue, southernwood, cucumbers, pole beans, cumin, rosemary, caraway, chick pea, squill, iris, arum, anise, coloquinth, chicory, animi, laserwort, lettuce, black cumin, garden rocket, nasturtium, burdock, penny-royal, alexander, parsley, celery, lovage, sabine tree, dill, fennel, endive, dittany, black mustard, savory, curly mint, water mint, horse mint, tansy, catnip, feverfew, poppy, beet sugar, marsh-mallows, high mallows, carrots, parsnips, oraches, amaranths, kohlrabis, cabbages, onions, chives, leeks, radishes, shallots, garlics, madder, artichokes or fulling thistles, big beans, field peas, coriander, chervil, capper spurge, clary.

All through the Dark and Middle Ages the chatelaine in her garden, the monk in his tiny patch, and each villager in his front dooryard grew a large proportion of herbs amongst the plants. Every plant grown was made to yield its utmost harvest. The seeds of cumin, coriander, fennel, and anise were crushed for their oil, and the juice was extracted from the wormwood leaves to flavor the fragrant liqueurs colored like emeralds or rubies which the monks brewed and sipped after a goodly repast as they sat in their spacious refectories.

With few roads, and those almost impassable, green vegetables could not be brought from warmer lands in the winter, nor were there any means for forcing them, so the dried herbs were most welcome and provided the vitamins absent from the winter diet, although they were, of course, not recognized as such. In spring, when the first leaves of tansy, sorrel, or sage showed green amongst the withered stems they were picked and either brewed in a tea or eaten as a "tansy"—that is an omelette into which the juice of the herbs has been stirred. The preparation of the first tansy of spring was almost a religious rite.

The superstitions, legends, and practices in regard to the herbs which existed in Europe were brought to the colonies by the settlers who continued many of the old ways of preparing medicines and flavoring their foods with them. In time they discarded some and when they came into contact with the Indians adopted new ones based on American plants and colored with Indian stories and beliefs.

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