Protective Plants

SOW THISTLE - a Welsh belief was that the devil could do no harm to anyone wearing a leaf from this plant (Trevelyan), or as one of the Anglo-Saxon herbaria said (in translation) - "so long as you carry it with you nothing evil will come to meet you" (Meaney). CLOVER, too, is a protective plant, able to drive witches away (Dyer). Anyone carrying it about his person will be able to detect the presence of evil spirits (Wood-Martin). If a farmer carries one, all will be well with his cattle at that most difficult time, May Day.

HAWTHORN is ambivalent in this regard. While providing shelter and abode for both fairies and witches, it will also protect from witchcraft. In Gwent, one of the commonest ways of breaking a witch's spell was reckoned to be putting a cross of whitethorn (or birch) over the house door (Roderick); far from there, the Serbs believed that a cradle made from hawthorn wood would be a powerful protective device (Vukanovic). "Drive witches out of milk" by beating it with hawthorn used to be a Pennsylvania German saying (Fogel). A BLACKTHORN stick is a protection, and not just in the physical sense, for in Irish folklore it was used to overcome evil spirits (O Suilleabhain); so it does in Slav folklore, too, where in addition bits of the plant would be caried sewn into the clothing (Lea). HAZEL too, in spite of being a fairy tree, provides the most effective protection that Irish folklore remembers against fairies and spirits (O Suilleabhain) ("If you cut a hazel rod and bring it with you, and turn it round about now and again, no bad thing can hurt you") (Gregory). The Somerset practice of putting a hazel branch outside the door, and making a cross in the ashes with a hazel twig, seems to be purely protective in intent (Tongue). DOGWOOD, from the time of ancient Rome, has similar powers. The safety of the city was bound up in one particular tree on the Palatine Hill. There are signs elsewhere that it is a protective tree. In the Balkans, for instance, women wear it as an amulet against witchcraft (Vukanovic), and in some Serbian villages it was a stick of dogwood that was put in the cradle first, to protect a newborn baby, just as FLAX did in Scandinavian belief. Unbaptised children could be preserved from harm by "sowing flax seed", though the authority quoting that does not elucidate (Kvideland & Sehmsdorf), but sowing flax seed around the house, on the road, or by the grave, was a common means of protection against the spirit of the dead in Norway and Denmark. Flax seed was also put in the coffin, and, to keep ghosts away, round the grave or house. The ghost must count every single seed before going any further, for flax is a magic plant (Rockwell). Popular explanations assign the power of flax to the belief that Christ was swaddled in a linen cloth. PEARLWORT, in its role as the mystical plant Mothan, is one of the prime protectors. It will protect from fairy changing, and from all fairy activity. Put on the door lintel, it prevents the spirits of the dead from entering the house (J G Campbell. 1902) (see MOTHAN).

HOLLY's scarlet berries ensure its inclusion among lightning plants, with all the protective power such a plant always has. In East Anglia, for example, a holly tree growing near a house is regarded as a protection against evil (G E Evans. 1966). Holly hedges surrounding many Fenland cottages were probably planted originally with the same idea in mind (Porter). And being a lightning plant it must protect from lightning. "Lightening never struck anyone if you were under a holly tree. Lightening never struck a holly tree", as a Devonshire informant said. As far back as Pliny's time, there are records of holly being planted near the house for that reason. In Germany, it is a piece of "church-holly", i.e., one that has been used for church decoration, that is the lightning charm (Crippen). Holly is equally efficacious against witchcraft and the fairies. Fenland belief had it that a holly stick in the hand would scare any witch. Builders used to like to make external door sills of holly wood, for no witch could cross it (Porter). Wiltshire tradition has it that the Christmas holly and bay wreath hung on the door is to keep witches out. In the west of England it was said that a young girl should put a sprig of holly on her bed on Christmas Eve, otherwise she might receive an unwelcome visit "from some mischievous goblin" (Crippen). YEW also protects, and if some branches are kept in the house, it will preserve it against fire and lightning (Elliott). WALNUT, too, is a protective tree, in spite of being looked on as unlucky in another aspect. In Bavaria, where the Easter Sunday fire used to be lit in the churchyard with flint and steel, every household would bring a walnut branch, which after being partially burned, would be carried home to be laid on the hearth as a protection against lightning (Dyer). Walnut leaves, gathered before sunrise on St John's Day, were believed in parts of France to protect from lightning too (Sebillot). People from Poitou used to jump three times round the Midsummer Fires with a walnut branch in their hands. That branch would be used to nail over the cowhouse door, as a protection for the beasts (Grimm). Moslem belief also recognised its protective influence, particuarly the root and bark, with which Moroccan women used to paint their lips and teeth a brownish colour (Westermarck). Another tree that is a protector is the ORIENTAL PLANE (Platanus orientalis), as Evelyn pointed out: "Whether for any virtue extraordinary in the shade, or other propitious influence issuing from them, a worthy knight, who stay'd at Ispahan in Persia, when that famous city was infested with a raging pestilence, told me, that since they have planted a greater number of these noble trees about it, the plague has not come nigh their dwellings".

IVY seems to be welcome as protection in Scotland, whereas elsewhere it is an unlucky plant. In the Highlands, a piece in the form of a circlet, often with honeysuckle and rowan, would be nailed over the byre door to prevent witches harming the cattle, and also to protect them from disease (MacGregor). Ivy kept evil away from the milk, butter, and the animals, and was put under the milk vessels, at such times, like May Eve (Grigson), when such protection was deemed necessary.

ROSEMARY was always taken to be a powerful "disperser of evil" (Baker. 1978). That is why they are planted near the house, so that "no witch could harm you" (Opie & Tatem), and to carry a piece with you was to keep every evil spirit at a distance (Hartland. 1909). In Spain, it is worn as an antidote to the evil eye (Rowe). A Jamaican belief was that if a house was haunted, burn rosemary, cow dung and horn, "and the duppies will leave" (Folk-lore. vol 15; 1904). It seems to have been looked upon as a general protector in all diseases, even if it was only treated as a charm rather than as a drug. A Sarajevo doctor told Kemp that women would throw down a sprig of rosemary as a protection against the doctor, and therefore all the illnesses with which he was associated, not least the plague. SWEET BRIAR had a similar reputation. In Normandy, hanging it over the door used to be regarded as a certain protection against witchcraft, but it also protected from fevers (W B Johnson), which must have been thought of as a result of malevolence. ELECAMPANE also protects. It is, of course, a famous medicinal plant, but in addition it would be sewn in children's clothes to ward off witchcraft, though it had to be gathered with some ritual, and on special days. That belief is centred on the Balkans (Vukanovics). AUTUMN GENTIAN protects, too. It is a herb of St John, and, according to Gubernatis, they used to say that whoever carried it about with him would never incur the wrath of the Czar. PERIWINKLE was used in charms against the evil eye (Folkard). Worn in the buttonhole, or carried dried in a sachet, it was a great protection against any witch not carrying it herself (Boland. 1977).

The root of MALE FERN, prepared as the Lucky Hand, guards the house from fire and many other perils (Hole. 1977) (see LUCKY HAND), and a Somerset belief is that FENNEL over the door will also prevent the house catching fire (Tongue). That is because fennel is a protective plant, and powers out of the ordinary have been associated with it. It was used to ward off evil spirits (Emboden), and to plug keyholes to keep away ghosts (Cullum), and it was hung over the door together with other herbs of St John at Midsummer. The 'benandanti' of 16th century Friuli, who were the "night-walkers" who fought witches on the psychic level, carried fennel as their weapon. It was said that these benandanti ate garlic and fennel "because they are a defence against witches" (Ginz-burg). It was used as a personal amulet, too. The seeds were hung round a child's neck against the evil eye (W Jones), and in Haiti it protects against loupgarous, and also serves to fortify pregnant women (F Huxley). A medieval Jewish amulet turns out to be a sprig of fennel over which an incantation had been recited, and which was then wrapped in silk, with some wheat and coins, and then encased in wax (Trachtenberg). SAGE, too, is a protective plant, at least in Spain and Portugal, where it is thought of as proof against the evil eye (Wimberley), and it appears that MULLEIN too offered some protection against evil. See, for instance, the Anglo-Saxon version of Apuleius, as translated by Cockayne: "if one beareth with him one twig of this wort, he will not be terrified with any awe, nor will a wild beast hurt him, or any evil coming near". It is also pointed out by Apuleius that what came to be regarded as mullein was the plant given by Mercury to Ulysses to neutralize the evil magic of Circe. In much the same vein, there is recorded an Irish charm to get back butter that had been witched away - all that is required is to put mullein leaves in the churn (Gregory. 1970).

VERVAIN was taken to be a great protector, either of the home (plant it on the roof and it will guard the house against lightning (Sebillot)), or of the person. Even in ancient times, it served in the purification of houses, and it was a Welsh custom to cut it, in the dark, to bring into a church, there to be used as a sprinkler of holy water (Clair). In Sussex, vervain leaves were dried and put in a black silk bag, to be worn round the neck of sickly children (Latham), probably to avert witchcraft rather than to effect a cure. Adults could be protected from the fairies and their spells by brewing a tea made from it, and drinking that (Spence. 1949). This belief in the power of vervain goes back a long way. The Romans hung it in their houses to ward off evil spirits (Thompson. 1897). Gerard tells us that "the Devil did reveal it as a sacred and divine medicine", and there are several versions of the couplet that Aubrey quotes:

Vervain and dill

Hinders witches from their will.

YARROW is another of these protective plants, doubly effective because it is also a herb of St John, and it is on the eve of the saint's festival that it would be hung up in Ireland to turn away illness (Grigson. 1955). It was also believed to have the power of dispersing evil spirits (Dyer. 1889), and in the Fen country it protected against evil spells, too; if it were strewn on the doorstep, no witch would dare enter the house (Porter. 1969). It would be hung up in the toolshed, "for safety" (it is a wound herb), but also to stop entry by thieves (Boland). A bunch of it was tied to the cradle to protect both baby and mother (R L Brown), or to make babies grow up happy and even-tempered (Porter. 1969). When going on a journey, pull ten stalks of yarrow, keep nine, and throw the tenth away (as the spirit's tithe, of course). Put the nine under the right heel, and evil spirits will have no power over you (Wilde. 1902). ST JOHN'S WORT is another protector against witches and fairies. When hung up on St John's Day together with a cross over the door of houses, it kept out evil spirits (Napier), and the Pennsylvania Germans fastem a sprig to the door to keep out witches (and flies) (Fogel). In Essex, they said that if it was hung in the window it would prevent witches looking in (C C Mason), while in the Western Isles the emphasis was on preventing ordinary folk seeing the witches (or "grisly visions", as it was described); it had to be sewn into the neck of a coat (Bonser), and left there, for if it were interfered with in any way, it would lose its power (Spence. 1959). But to be effective as an amulet it had to be found accidentally (J A MacCulloch). It was given to Irish children on St John's Eve to avert sickness (O Suilleabhain. 1942). These are all passive amulets, but it is said that St John's Wort had an active role, too. A white witch's "unwitching medicine" consisted of, among other things and rituals, three leaves of sage and three of Herb John, steeped in ale, to be taken night and morning (Seth).UPRIGHT ST JOHN'S WORT (Hypericum pulchrum) is just as active, provided it was found accidentally, "when neither sought for nor wanted", and then it should be put secretly in the bodice, if the finder was a woman, or if a man, in his waistcoat under the armpit (Banks. 1937), when it would ward off fever, and keep its owner from being taken in his sleep by the fairies (J G Campbell).

PRIMROSES are fairy flowers, but fairy flowers can give protection from the fairies as well. Manx children used to gather them to lay before the doors of houses on May Eve to prevent the entrance of the fairies, who cannot pass them, so it was said (Hull). In Ireland they tied primroses to the cows' tails (Wilde. 1902), for no evil spirits could touch anything protected by them (Buchanan). A primrose ball over the threshold served the same purpose in Somerset (Tongue. 1965). Those powers of protection went further - they could be used against the evil eye, for example (Wood-Martin). DAISY chains, just a children's game usually, are sometimes felt in Somerset to be a protection for children (Tongue. 1965), and daisies formed one of the three magic posies given to the traveller in the Derbyshire folk tale called the Crooker, to protect him from evil. "Take the posy and show it to Crooker". The other posies were of St John's Wort, and primroses (Tongue. 1970). PENNYROYAL will protect against the evil eye in Italy, and in Sicily it is hung on fig trees to prevent figs falling before they are ripe (Bardswell). Also in Sicily, it was given to married couples who were always quarrelling (Folkard). In parts of Morocco, it is picked and put in the rafters as a protection against evil, but it had to be gathered before Midsummer (Westermarck. 1926). It used to be burnt in the Moroccan Midsummer fires, too, lit between the animals, the smoke presumably acting as a protection (Westermarck. 1905). POMEGRANATES were protectors against the evil eye under certain circumstances. The Arabs of Hiaina, for example, always squeezed one of the fruit over the horns of the oxen when commencing ploughing. The juice would run into any evil eye, and so render the evil harmless. HENNA paste is a cosmetic, of course, but that use is overlaid by its protective role against the evil eye. Red is a good prophylactic colour, anyway. Westermarck. 1926 outlines many cases in Morocco in which henna plays its protective role. It is used chiefly by women, but also on special occasions by men, and it is applied to new-born babies as well. At the age of 40 days the infant had the crown of the head smeared with henna, as a protection against fleas and lice, but also against the evil eye; the application is repeated frequently till it gets older. The mother would have her hands and feet painted with it. Similar beliefs are held among the Nubian people known as the Kanuz. Almost all life-crises, whatever their nature, involve the use of henna. It was applied to the hands, feet and forehead of a groom on his wedding night, while the bride's entire body would be hennaed. SAFFRON had its protective side. In Morocco, for instance, it was one of the plants used to drive away the juun, and it was also used as a charm against the evil eye. Evil spirits are said to be afraid of Saffron, which is used in the writing of charms against them (Westermarck). Some Hebrew amulets, too, were written with a copper pen, using ink made from lilies and saffron (Budge). But it is not an inherent quality in the plant that is exploited. Rather it is the colour that is effective. Another example of protective colour is the blue of INDIGO in the Mayan villages of Yucat√°n. The ordinary amulet to keep off evil spirits and to avert the evil eye is a collection of small objects tied together with thread. It is this thread that is dyed blue with juice from the plant, and the same dye is used to paint the fingernails of persons who are threatened with death from sickness (Redfield & Villa).

In Polynesia, it is the leaves of the TI PLANT (Cordy-line terminalis) that are the safeguard against attacks from the angry dead. Carrying food, especially at night, is regarded as very dangerous in Hawaii, and so they tie a green ti leaf to the container as a protective charm, which commands the ghost to fly away. Similarly, women wear a ti leaf as a protection when they approach particularly dangerous places (Beck-with. 1940).

ROWAN is the most important of the protective trees, whether against lightning, witchcraft, the dead or the fairies, or any evil influence whatever. It was the most powerful antidote to witchcraft known in the British Isles, particularly with regard to livestock and the general fertility of the farm. The list of usages is too long to be included here, but see ROWAN, where the customs are described fully. BIRD CHERRY assumes rowan's role in Wester Ross, Scotland. A walking stick made from the wood, for example, prevented the bearer from getting lost in mist (C M Robertson). One rhyme from the area shows bird cherry and rowan working together:

Hagberry, hagberry, hang the de'il,

Rowan-tree, rowan-tree, help it weel (Denham).

WYCH ELM is used in Scotland in very much the same way as Rowan. In the Cromarty legend of Willie Miller, who went to explore the Dropping Cave - "he sewed sprigs of rowan and wych-elm in the hem of his waistcoat, thrust a Bible into ine pocket and a bottle of gin into the other ..."

(H Miller). Smollett knew of Wych Elm's prophylactic powers, for he has a character in Humphrey Clinker say "As for me, I put my trust in the Lord, and I have got a slice of witch elm sewed in the gathers of my under petticoat". In some villages of central Europe it was usual to plant a LIME tree in front of a house to stop witches entering.

MARSH MARIGOLD acts as a protector at a particular time of year, i.e., May Day. In Ireland, they act like the rowan does elsewhere, to protect the cattle (Grigson. 1955) and the house from evil influences. In County Antrim, children used to gather the flowers and push one through the letterbox of every house in the village, so that the house would be protected. The children, of course, were suitably rewarded. The pure white flowers of the CHRISTMAS ROSE make it the symbol of purity, and so it would be a protector from evil spirits. No evil could enter a house near which this plant was growing. JUNIPER, both the wood and the berries, is a protective tree, indeed the very symbol of protection (Leyel. 1937). Like many another plant, juniper offered the Virgin and the infant Jesus protection when hiding from Herod's men, and received her blessing in return for the shelter given. Among these plants, juniper was believed to have been particularly invested with the power of putting to flight the spirits of evil, and of destroying charms. Like box, juniper growing near the door protected the house from witchcraft, for the witch had to stop and count every leaf before proceeding (M Baker. 1977). In the Highlands of Scotland, juniper was specially used for "saining" on New Year's Day, and at Shrovetide. Branches were set alight, and carried through the house, the smoke spreading into a thick, suffocating cloud (McNeill. 1961), produced by closing up every window, crevice and keyhole in the house, for the smoke, besides protecting the house and its occupants from evil influences, was also supposed to have the ability to dispel infection (Camp). Juniper was burned before the cattle, too (Davidson. 1955), or it was boiled in water, to be sprinkled over them. ARCHANGEL (Angelica archan-gelica) by its very name, ensured its value as a protection, not only against epidemic diseases like plague, but also against other evil spirits and witchcraft, and the cattle disease elf-shot (Prior). Cornish folklore still regards it as a strong witch repellent (Deane & Shaw). Wearing a piece of WALL PENNYWORT keeps you from harm, so it is said in Dorset (Dacombe). Even AGRIMONY is a protector, according to a complicated Guernsey charm, to be worn round the neck: take nine bits of green broom, and two sprigs of the same, which you must tie together in the form of a cross; nine morsels of elder, nine leaves of betony, nine of agrimony [the number nine is significant; it is three times three, a magical number] and a little bay salt, salammoniac, new wax, barley, leaven, camphor and quicksilver. The quicksilver must be enclosed in cobbler's wax. Put the whole into a new linen cloth that has never been used, and sew it well up so that nothing will fall out. Hang this round your neck. It is a sure preservative against the power of witches (Mac-Culloch). BETONY, too, is a protector. Sown round the house it protects it from witchcraft. "The house where Herba Betonica is sowne, is free from all misch-eefes" (Scot). The Anglo-Saxon Herbal mentions it as a shield against "frightful goblins that go by night and terrible sights and dreams" (Bonser). "For phantasma and delusions: Make a garland of betony and hang it about thy neck when thou goest to bed, that thou mayest have the savour thereof all night, and it will help thee" (Dawson). The first item on Apuleius' list is "for monstrous nocturnal visitors and frightful sights and dreams" (Cockayne). A Welsh charm to prevent dreaming was to "take the leaves of betony, and hang them about your neck, or else the juice on going to bed" (Bonser).

ONION protects by attracting to itself epidemic diseases. In any case, they (and garlic) are good antibiotics. In Cheshire, they used to say that a peeled onion set on the mantelpiece during an epidemic will cause the infection to fly to the onion, and so spare the inhabitants of the house (Hole. 1937). The onion was supposed to turn black if there was any infection about (Palmer. 1976). Yoruba belief is somewhat similar, but put another way. They say that onions use their smell to kill disease (Buckley). Clearly the cure did not rely on the onion's being peeled, for we are told simply that a row of onions over the door would absorb all diseases from anyone who came in (Whitney & Bullock). That came from Massachusetts, but a Somerset belief is exactly the same, and indeed goes further, for the bunch of onions over the door will keep away not only illness, but also witches (Tongue. 1965).There is a story from India of people who always hung an onion by their house-doors. When plague visited the area, they were the ones to survive (Igglesden), and in plague years in London, three or four onions left on the ground for ten days were believed to gather all the infection in the neighbourhood (Wilson). Animals could be safeguarded as well. During the disastrous foot and mouth disease outbreak in Britain in 1968, on one Cheshire farm that escaped, although in the midst of the infection, the farmer's wife had laid rows of onions along all the windowsills and doorways of the cowsheds, and attributed the farm's escape to this precaution (M Baker. 1980). There are other examples of the protective role of onions, even if they involve wishful thinking, If, for example, you rub the schoolmaster's cane with an onion, it will split when he strikes you (Addy. 1895), a superstition that onions share with green walnut shells; or you will not feel the cane if you rub an onion across the palm of the hand (Gutch. 1911). An onion carried in the pocket will relieve the bad luck of meeting a single magpie (Tongue. 1965, Whitlock. 1992), and so on. WORMWOOD relies on its very strong smell in serving as a protection against evil spirits. Roumanian folklore recognises malignant spirits, generally figured as three female divinities, who haunt fountains and crossroads, and can raise whirlwinds. They sing to lure people to their doom. The protection against them is wormwood, bunches of it to hang on doors and windows, or at the belt (Beza). Arnaldo de Vilanova, writing in the early 14th century, said that wormwood put at the door will act as a protection against sorcery (Lea). So, too, in Somerset, where it was used against the evil eye. Another protector by smell is GINGER, some Malaysian people have their children wear a piece of ginger round their neck, so that the pungent smell will keep harmful spirits away (Classen, Howes & Synnott).

SWEET FLAG seems to have had a protective reputation in Japanese folklore. In the various stories of the serpent-bridegroom, the plant is used to thwart the evil supernatural (Seki). It was a protector in China, too; it was put up at the side of outdoor gates (so was MUGWORT) to avert the unpropitious (Tun Li Ch'en). BASIL is kept in every Hindu home, to protect the family from evil (A W Hatfield). GROUND IVY, too, has some protective powers. According to a story quoted by Lady Wilde, ground ivy carried in the hand gave protection against attacks by the fairies (Wilde. 1902), and it was one of the plants used on the Continent to enable the wearer to see and name witches (Lea). African-Americans in the southern states of USA look on JACK-IN-THE-PULPIT as a protective plant. They would take the leaves and rub them on the hands, and that would blind an enemy. But they use it to make charms to bring security and peace, and to protect them from enemies (Puckett). The leaves are luck-bringers, if carried about on the person (Puckett).

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