Snakes

In Sweden, they said that snakes would lose their venom by a touch of a HAZEL wand (Fiske). Elsewhere it was said that snakes cannot approach the tree (Kelly). It was by use of a hazel stick that St Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland (Wilde. 1890). To this day, Dartmoor people say that if a dog is bitten by an adder, a hazel wand should be twisted into a ring and put round the animal's neck (St LegerGordon), or, according to another authority, hold the dog's head over a cauldron in which ELDER flowers were being boiled (Whitlock. 1977). A very long way from Dartmoor, in the Balkans in fact, it is said that a young hazel twig, cut after sundown on St George's Day (a significant saint in view of this belief) should be used to rub a snakebite wound, and to draw a magic circle round it (Kemp). But in spite of all this, there was a German belief in something like a hazel serpent - a crowned white snake that lived beneath the hazel tree. The snake is a symbol of wisdom, and the hazel too bears that symbolism. There was also a Welsh belief that a snake found under or near a hazel on which mistletoe grew, would have a precious stone in its head (Trevelyan), presumably another way of describing the traditional wisdom of the snake. GREAT PLANTAIN, too, was thought to provide protection against snakes. The Anglo-Saxon version of Apuleius advised the patient who had been bitten to eat the plant! (Cockayne). But American Indian peoples in general agreed with the European verdict; the Ojibwe, for instance, actually carried plantain about with them, for immediate emergency protection (Densmore). CENTAURY had a great reputation in early times for healing snake-bites. From the AngloSaxon version of Apuleius, there is "for bite of snake, take dust of this wort, or itself pounded; administer this to the patient in old wine" (Cockayne), and in the 15th century, there is a leechdom for "biting of an adder. Grind centaury and butter and give the sick to drink and it will help both man and beast". Topsell added his weight. For snake-bite, he wrote "... after cupping glasses and scarifications, there is nothing that can be more profitably applied than centaury ...". AGRIMONY was another plant with a great reputation. One Anglo-Saxon leechdom advised the victim to make a ring with this plant "about the bite, it (the poison) will not pass any further ..." (Storms). Culpeper recommended it, and Lupton noted that agrimony by itself was enoug:. "... with a wonderful facility [it] healeth the bites of serpents and other venomous beasts".

ASH has the power to repel serpents, such was the belief, from Pliny's time onwards. He said that snakes would rather creep into a fire than come in contact with it. Bartholomew Anglicus repeated the belief: "And if a serpent be set between a fire and Ash-leaves, he will flee into the fire sooner than into the leaves" (Seager). Evelyn knew about the "old imposture of Pliny's, who either took it upon trust, or we mistake the tree", and Gerard also repeated the belief, less critically: "The leaves of this tree are of so great virtue against serpents that they do not so much as touch the morning and evening shadows of the trees, but shun them afar off". Trees were actually planted round houses, to keep adders away. In Devonshire, they said it only needed a circle drawn round an adder with an ash stick to kill it, and a circle of ash twigs round the neck cured adder bite.

ELDER, so it is said, is distasteful to snakes. Thomas Hill, in 1577, wrote that "if the Gardener bestoweth the fresh Elder where the Serpents daily haunt, they will hastily depart the place". The Physicians of Myddfai prescribed "for the bite of a snake . let the juice of the elder be drunk, and it will disperse all the poison". PARSLEY also had a reputation of being able to destroy poison, so would cure snakebite (see Anglo-Saxon Apuleius again - "for bite of adder, take some very small dust of . parsley, by weight of a shilling, give it to drink in wine; then take and lay to the wound the wort pounded" (Cockayne). Topsell suggested that "apium seed", CELERY, that is, was used for snakebites. PIMPERNEL leaves were used for dog- and snake-bites. They were prepared by powdering, and, with the root, were made into an infusion. A teaspoonful of this, or about 20 grains of the powder, were put into a cup, with 15 drops of spirits of hartshorn, and a dose given every six hours. This would be continued for 15 days. Rags steeped in the decoction were applied to the wound, and the underlinen was soaked, too (Trevelyan). Lupton, in the 17th century claimed that "if you would kill snakes and adders, strike them with a large RADISH, and to handle adders and snakes without harm, wash your hands in the juice of Radishes and you may do so without harm", Did anyone actually try that?

Sometimes it is the physical characteristics of a plant that makes it an antidote to snake-bite. ADDER'S TONGUE, for example, was used, for the doctrine of signatures ensured that this was appropriate. Another example involves DRAGON ARUM. Gerard described the plant as having "spots of divers colours, like those of the adder or snake ...". It comes as no surprise, with that kind of signature, to find it being used long ago against snakebite, and, as it is easy to combine prevention and cure, what will cure snakebite will also prevent it. Gerard again: "it is reported that they who have rubbed the leaves or root upon their hands, are not bitten of the viper". He ascribed this to Pliny, who "saith that serpents ill not come neere unto him that beareth dragons about him". The white-veined leaves of the American plant known as CREEPING LADY'S TRESSES, looked like snakeskin to the early herbalists, who took it is as a sign for the virtues against snakebite (Cunningham & Côté). That is why it got the name Rattlesnake Plantain. The rhizomes of WATER ARUM (Calla palustris) also contain an acrid compound used as an antidote to snake venom (Schauenberg & Paris). Given the common name of Scorzonera humilis, VIPER'S GRASS, the herb was bound to cure snakebite. See Gerard: "It is reported by those of great judgement, that Viper's-grasse is most excellent against the infections of the plague, and all poysons of venomous beasts, and especially to cure the buitings of vipers.". A plant like VIRGINIAN SNAKEROOT, whose roots are writhed, and look like snakes, would similarly provide the remedy, though it must be said that native Americans were using it first. All they did was chew the root and apply it, or spit it, on to the bite (Weiner), and chewing the leaves is still an Indiana way of treating it (Tyler). The same applies to SENEGA SNAKEROOT. One account says it grows wherever there are rattlesnakes, so naturally it would be used to cure their bite (Dorman). Similarly, SUNFLOWER seeds were used by the American Indians - the seeds were chewed and made into a poultice, and this was taken to be an antidote to rattlesnake-bite (Stevenson). GOATWEED (Ageratum conyzoides) is an aid to catching snakes - the leaves are crushed and rubbed on the hands. Presumably the rather unpleasant smell (the plant is not called Goatweed for nothing) affects the snakes in some way, and the Mano tame a snake by using the bud leaves of MELEGUETA PEPPER. They are chewed, and spat on the snake's head to calm it (Harley).

The Greeks believed that snakes had recourse to FENNEL to cure blindness (Grieve. 1933), and it was popularly believed in the Middle Ages that dragons could cure their blindness, "apparently a common affliction of dragons", by rubbing their eyes with fennel, or eating it (Hogarth). The other point about fennel and snakes is that " so soone as they taste of it they become young again ..." (Hulme. 1895). There was a French superstition that LADY'S SMOCK was the favourite flower of snakes. Mothers warned children not to touch them, for fear of being bitten by a snake some time in the coming year (Sebillot). They are certainly unlucky flowers, not to be brought indoors. STITCHWORT, too, must not be gathered, for it is a fairy plant. In addition, Cornish children say they will be bitten by an adder if they pick it (Macmillan). There are a variety of "snake" names given to this plant, Snake-grass, Adder's Meat, Hagworm-flower, and so on. LAVENDER, so it was thought at one time, was the home of snakes, but other early writers assured their readers that the herb actively discouraged "venomous wormes" from coming near it (Hulme. 1895). In central Africa, the roots of CHINESE LANTERN (Dichrostachys glomerata) are chewed and macerated, to put on snake or scorpion bites to remove the poison (Palgrave).

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