Fertility

BIRCH seems to have been a symbol of fertility. Saplings were put in houses and stables, and men and women, as well as cattle, were struck with birch twigs, with the avowed intention of increasing fertility (Elliott). Birch twigs were put over the lover's door on May morning in Cheshire (Wimberley). At one time, when a Welsh girl accepted an offer of marriage, she presented her lover with a wreath of birch leaves; if she refused him, she sent hazel (Trevelyan). But

HAZEL itself is another symbol of fertility. Throwing hazel nuts at a bride and bridegroom had the same significance as rice and confetti have today (Hole. 1957), and until quite recently, Devonshire brides were given little bags of hazel nuts as they left church. The gypsy bridegroom, before the wedding ceremony, had to carry with him hazel wands wreathed in ribbons, "to ward off the influence of water" (Starkie), so it was said, but the real reason was to ensure the fertility of the marriage. A Bohemian saying was that plenty of hazel nuts meant the birth of many bastards (Dyer), but in Somerset it meant fertility in wedlock, too. As the old saying was, "Good nutting year, plenty of boy babies" (Hole. 1957). Ruth Tongue told the story of the Somerset village girl who returned from London in the 1930s to be married. She openly said she didn't intend to be hampered with babies too soon, and would take steps to ensure this. Such talk outraged village morality, and when she got to her new house, she found among the presents a large bag of nuts, to which most of her neighbours had contributed. She had four children very quickly. Anyway, "going a -nutting" is a euphemism for love-making. Another Somerset practice was that of throwing an ONION after the bride, to bring a long family (Tongue). It is certainly unusual to associate onions with fertility.

HINAU (Elaeocarpus dentatus) is a New Zealand tree, one particular specimen of which, in North Island, used to be a powerful symbol of fertility. A childless woman embraced this tree while her husband recited the necessary charm. The east side of the tree was the male side, the west the female, and the woman would make her choice of east or west according to whether she wanted a boy or a girl (Andersen). SILVER FIR is another tree with fertility connections. It was sacred in Greece to Artemis, the moon-goddess who presided over childbirth (Graves). As such, it is a symbol of fertility. At Hildeheim, women were struck with a small fir-tree at Shrovetide, and in north Germany, brides and bridegrooms often carried fir-branches with lighted tapers. Elsewhere, firs were planted before a house when a wedding took place. It was also used at weddings in Russia (Hartland. 1909). MISTLETOE, fairly obviously, is a fertility agent. Hartland quoted the maxim ascribed to the Druids that the powder of mistletoe makes women fruitful. In 17th century England, it was certainly regarded as among the most efficacious of medical elements, and in older Celtic lore was thought of as being one and the same as the "Silver Bough". Its berries held the male essence or protoplasm of the god, and so they were regarded especially as conferring powers of fertility. That explains why they were used at Yule as a kind of love-token, nowadays reduced to harmless kissing under the mistletoe. Another point is the way the berries are arranged - they show a likeness to the male parts, further reason for the superstition that it confers fertility (Grigson. 1955). The Welsh medical text known as the Physicians of Myddfai furthered the myth by prescribing a decoction to cause fruit-fulness of the body and the getting of children. The Ainos of Japan thought exactly the same (Hartland. 1909). Even wearing mistletoe, without any internal dose, had the same effect, according to Coles: "some women have worn it about their necks or on their arms, thinking it will help them to conceive".

ROSEMARY must have been some kind of fertility agent, for it was at one time much used at weddings, and a symbol of fidelity in love. "Rosemary bound with ribbons" was a token of a bride's love for her husband, but more to the point, as late as 1700, country bridal beds were decked with it (Baker. 1977), and the Welsh Physicians of Myddfai prescribed it as a remedy for barren-ness. WHITE BRYONY, on the strength of its claim to be the "English Mandrake", joins the list of fertility stimulants. In Lincolnshire for instance, it was actually reckoned to be the specific for causing women to conceive (Gutch & Peacock). In East Anglia, a childless woman who wanted a baby would drink "mandrake tea" (Porter. 1969), presumably made from the roots, but not necessarily so. They were even given to mares as an aid to conception (Drury. 1985). (see also CONCEPTION, aids to, WEDDINGS, and SYMBOLISM).

MANDRAKE had the power, it was said, to put an end to barren-ness, even quite independently of sexual intercourse. See also Genesis 30; 14-16, where Rachel bargained for the mandrakes with her sister Leah. (see Hartland. 1909). Amulets, as figures made from mandrake root, were worn by Palestinians, both men and women, to promote fertility (Emboden. 1979). In the early part of the 20th century, American Jews still believed in the power of the mandrake to induce fertility. They used to import specimens of the root from the Near East just for this purpose (Randolph). CUCUMBERS, being phallic emblems, will naturally symbolize fecundity.

Ferula assa-foetida > ASAFOETIDA

Ferula communis > GIANT FENNEL

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