Peony

(Paeonia mascula) Paeonia as the name was established by Theophrastus, who chose it in honour of Paeon, who first used it medicinally, and was said to have cured with it the wounds that the gods received during the Trojan war (Blunt. 1957). Peon first received the flower from the mother of Apollo on Mount Olympus, and with it cured Pluto of a wound he had received in a fight with Hercules. A plant of divine origin, then, so why should it be the symbol of bashfulness? (Leyel. 1937). It was looked on, too, as an emanation of the moon, endowed with the property of shining, or at least glowing, in the night (like mandrake), of chasing away evil spirits, and of protecting the houses near which it grew (Henderson). It was an antidote to sickness caused by demonic possession (Dalyell), such as the falling sickness. Culpeper speaks of its virtues for this complaint, and the powdered root was often given for it (see Thornton, for instance). In Sussex, a necklace turned from the roots was worn by children to prevent convulsions, and to help teething (Latham) (probably elsewhere, too, for Berdoe mentions it), and a necklace of peony seeds was used in parts of France to keep children free from fits (Sebillot). The Pennsylvania Germans used to say that to prevent convulsions, you should wash the child with a rag that had been tied over a peony flower (Fogel). Gerard also mentioned a necklace made from the roots "tied about the neckes of children" as an effective "remedy against the falling sicknesse...". The use went further: it "heals such as are thought to be bewicht ...". Langham, too, went beyond the falling sickness; he claimed that it protected against "the haunting of the fairies and goblins". These necklaces were known as 'Anodyne necklaces' in the 17th and 18th centuries. According to Pliny, such necklaces also protected against nightmares. Even someone as rational as Bacon subscribed to the view that it protected from "the incubus we call the mare", a belief repeated many times, by Coles, Gerard, Lyte, etc.,

Peony protected from lightning, too (Tynan & Mai-tland), and when worn on the person, it was long considered as an effective remedy for insanity. The Anglo-Saxon version of Apuleius has: "For lunacy, if a man layeth this wort over the lunatic, as he lies, soon he upheaveth himself whole; and if he hath (this wort) with him, the disease never again approaches him" (Cockayne). Other superstitions centred round the peony include an example that enjoins one to count the flowers on the plant. If there is an odd number on each plant, it is a sign that there will be a death in the house before the year is out (Notes and Queries; 1873). Another from the Pennsylvania Germans said that it is very bad luck to give a peony plant to someone as a present - somebody in your family will die within the year (Fogel).

To revert to so-called medicinal uses, and the doctrine of signatures, Coles opined that "the heads of the Flower . have some signature and proportion with the Head of Man, having sutures and little veins dispersed up and down like unto those which environ the brain. When the flowers blow, they open an outward little skin, representing the skull, and are very available against the Falling sicknesse ...". Wesley, nearly a hundred years later, was advising his people to take a "Tea-spoonfull of Piony root dried and grated fine, Morning and Evening for three Months" for falling sickness. Hill also recommended it, and so did Burton (Anatomy of Melancholy), and it is also recorded in Aerivan domestic medicine (H M Hyatt).

Peony roots were prescribed for sciatica (Cockayne), and jaundice too was treated with it, at least according to Gerard, who also quoted Dioscorides when claiming that the root "is given to women that be not well clensed after their deliverie, being drunke in Mead or honied water to the quantitie of a beane ..." That is interesting, for there is a record that Hungarian gypsies took the leaves in wine, with Rose Bay leaves and ergot, for abortive purposes (Erdös).

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