Plants are an important part of this planet’s ecology and in olden days people worked with the flowers, the herbs and even the weeds, all of which have their many different uses. George Hoyle is a folklorist and I spoke to him about their uses and the customs that comes with them.
I began with asking him about the significance of plants and the principle of the folklore around them.
GH: “It’s not that long ago that folk believed that plants and shrubs had magical properties and even in the twenty-first century many of us half remember odd bits of information about the weeds and plants that have been handed down, old knowledge echoed over the generations.
“Spring would have been like an annual miracle, it would have been an emergence from a frozen dead world, the warm spring rain may have been thought as the means as to the way the plants were fertilised and maybe the early hunting gatherers took an interest in the plants when they realised that certain roots and flowers had curative powers that could restore one’s health.
“And in olden times curative properties of plants would have had implications that the modern mind may not necessarily have, so the understanding of illness and the reason for the appearance of illness appearance was very different.”
So the people would assume the illness came from some other place?
GH: “Yes, for example in the Siberian times the tribes folk believed that illness was a misfortune placed upon somebody by someone in the spirit world, known as animism, everything in nature is controlled by one of many spirits and every action is an interaction with a hidden world which exists in parallel with the world within. Any kind of illness or misfortune is due to an unkind spirit and any good fortune is due to a kind spirit.
“Early man would associate spirit beings with plants. They had legendary characters such as grass-woman, tree trunk man, creatures that drift from one state to another, at one point adopting the form of a human and at other times transform into the vegetative but also being a spirit that acts like a sentinel around the object, around the vegetable.”
So, these were hunter-gather types of tribes?
GH: “As society changed from hunter gather to a more agriculture and settled one the spirit and plant world became more defined. The spirit world became more of a hierarchy and the plants became the symbols of the gods. A great example is Osiris, the Egyptian god, now known as the god of the underworld but originally, he was the god of the green, which is why he is depicted green skinned.
“In classical times the distinction of magic and botany was intertwined for example the study of herbs was an important. What we think of now as magic at that time was thought of as technology and this is really how they were trying to study the world. The study of herbs was an important facet of life in the ancient world.”
These would be the medical people of that time? There would be scientists and healers.
GH: “An integral part of medieval life was the cunning folk. The skills of the cunning folk were the less educated and the scientists were the middle class, but the herb woman would concoct things like simples, which is like a placebo or a signature, which is quite synthetic in its magic where like would affect like, the concoctions the cunning folk made, the diffusions, was countryside knowledge handed down from generation to generation.”
And they would work with the seasons, the moon and such like?
GH: “The time and manner of picking the plants was absolutely vital, the picking diary of plants for medicinal purposes had an astrological factor, for example healing herbs you would gather beneath a waxing moon, if you want to do something with a bit more ill intent you would pick on a waning moon, for example the witches of Macbeth picked the hemlock just before the new moon.”
One needs an understanding of the sun, moon and stars to know when to use these plants to their best effect then?
GH: “I am going to tell you around summer solstice and midsummer night’s eve, which was the time for the culling of magical plants for maximum magical effect. Mugwort for example you would pick on solstice eve, if you wear it in your belt it would protect you from backache during the harvest and also protects against ghosts and magic. St Johns Wort should be collected on St John’s eve which will also protect you from witchcraft and magic. On midsummer eve fern is supposed to bloom and then to seed and whoever catches the bloom or seed is endowed with magical abilities, and the catcher can find hidden treasures, if you put it in your shoe, it makes you invisible. But you cannot catch it with your hand for this to work.”
How does one catch it?
GH: “You have to take a white cloth, put it underneath the fern and catch it that way. The magical power of the seed and spores is actually highest during summer and winter solstices.”
I like the treasure-seeking seed.
GH: “Sometimes the seeds will glow and if you hold the seeds on midsummer eve then climb a mountain you will find a vein of gold.”
And that is what I shall be doing next summer, catching the seed and climbing a mountain in search for gold! George Hoyle is also a singer songwriter with Cunning Folk and here is a little tune recorded live in south-east London called ‘we are the harvest’. https://archive.org/details/cunningfolkwearetheharvest