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It is not a secret that my least favorite month is February.  Winter keeps holding on with grim ferocity while the joys of spring are, at best, far away.  Every year when the end of winter comes around I keep looking out at the garden waiting for the first green shoots to appear.  But the garden is still a sea of gray rubble and dead stalks (plus I failed to plant windflowers or snowdrops and the crocuses and hellebores have yet to flower).

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So this year, instead of going all the way outside (where it sounds like there is a windstorm), I went to the internet to find some early blooming flowers and I came across the witch hazels (the family Hamamelidaceae).  I have encountered them before–in liquid form as an astringent aftershave, however the living plants turn out to be very lovely in a small wilderness meadow sort of way. There are four North American species of witch hazels and two Asian species (one from China and one from Japan).  They are small deciduous shrubs/trees with large oval leaves. The American species are also known as winterbloom (which should have served as a hint that they bloomed in the cold season). The picture at the top of the post is the Chinese witch hazel ((H. mollis) currently blooming at the Brooklyn Botanic garden.

Witch hazels have red and yellow flowers with droopy corkscrew petals.  From a distance these have a winsome loveliness, but up close they are pretty crazy–like a Murano glassblower got the hiccups or an abstract expressionist sent you a bouquet. Here is a little gallery of witch hazels which I lovingly stole from around the web.

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Branding is a powerful force, and I have always assumed that these plants were used in ancient magics by various priestesses, enchantresses, sorceresses, and other suchlike lady thaumaturges.  Imagine my distress to learn that the witch hazels are in no way affiliated with witches or any other sort of dark magic.  Apparently this version of the word “witch” comes down to us from the Old English word “wice”, which means pliant or, uh,  bendy and is unrelated to the magical sort of witch.  Thanks a lot, English, what other misleading homonyms do you have lying around the garden beds.   Anyway enjoy the witch hazels and pretty soon we will go out and look at some proper spring flowers (if and when the wind calms down).

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(that witch better have an OED somewhere)

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) photo by Robert Seago

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) photo by Robert Seago

Here is an interesting and horrifying flower!  This is henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) which also goes by the name “stinking nightshade.”  It is one of the noteworthy poisons of classical antiquity.  Henbane is a member of the Solanaceae family—the nightshades—one of the most important of all plant families to humankind.  The Solanaceae family includes eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes, but also nightshade, datura, and tobacco!

Henbane Illustration/diagram

Henbane Illustration/diagram

Henbane too is rich in psychoactive alkaloids.  Small doses result in dilated pupils, restlessness, flushed skin, and hallucinations.  Other symptoms of henbane poisoning include a racing heart, vomiting, extreme body temperature fluctuations, the inability to control one’s muscles, convulsions, coma, and, uh, death, so it’s probably well to steer clear of eating (or touching or taunting) this particular plant.  The ancient Greeks and Romans did not read my blog, so they sometimes ingested henbane.  In particular, Pliny documented its use by fortunetellers. The priestesses of Apollo would take the plant in order that they might fall into a hallucinogenic trance and then pronounce auguries. It should be noted that priestesses of Apollo tended not to last too well.  Henbane also had associations with the world hereafter, and dead souls wandering the margins of the underworld were said to wear henbane laurels.

Two apothecary vessels for storage of Hyoscyamus niger (ca. 19th century) photo by Bullenwächter

Two apothecary vessels for storage of Hyoscyamus niger (ca. 19th century) photo by Bullenwächter

Henbane originated in southern Europe and western Asia, but classical civilization spread it widely across all of Europe (from whence it traveled to the rest of the world). Incompetent medieval pharmacists used it as an anesthetic and for other sundry “medicinal” uses.  It was also popular with poisoners (scholars think it is the most likely candidate to be “hebenon” the poison from Hamlet) and was the means of death for many murders even into contemporary times.  It also has a sad place in the witch panics that affected Europe during the dark ages and the early modern era.  Witches were said to use it in their potions.  Domestic animals would also sometimes eat it accidentally and run wild or perish. Thus witch-hunters would look for the plant and use it as evidence in their trials (although it grows wild as a weed).  Also, because of its powerful psychoactive properties, henbane could well give a user the impression of flying and of various supernatural happenings.

Witches' Sabbath (Hans Baldung Grien, 1510, woodcut)

Witches’ Sabbath (Hans Baldung Grien, 1510, woodcut)

On a more mundane level, brewers used henbane to flavor beer until this was recognized as a bad idea (which occurred much later than you might hope) and it was universally replaced with hops.  Evidence of henbane’s use as a flavoring agent for beer goes all the way back to the Neolithic era.  There is clearly evidence that henbane does something for (to?) humans, but there is even clearer evidence that it is tremendously dangerous and toxic.  Maybe it’s best to appreciate this ancient plant through reading about it and looking at pictures of the strange weedy flowers.

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A Satellite Photo of Modern Gotland (reference needed)

A Satellite Photo of Modern Gotland (reference needed)

Tonight we travel once again to the ancient and mysterious island of Gotland, the largest island in the Baltic Sea.  Ferrebeekeeper has already visited Gotland as the (possible) land of origin of the enigmatic Goths and as a place which is absolutely covered in beautiful medieval churches, but in this post we push further back in Gotland’s mysterious past to contemplate an ancient sculpture.   The Smiss stone (Smisstenen) also known as the Ormhäxan (which means snake-witch stone) is a carved picture stone shaped like a huge piece of toast which shows three zoomorphic serpent creatures entwined in a sort of triskelion pattern.  Beneath the creatures, an apparently female human figure with legs spread holds aloft two writing serpents.

The Snake Witch Stone (unknown sculptor, ca. 400-600 AD)

The Snake Witch Stone (unknown sculptor, ca. 400-600 AD)

As you can see, the actual stone is even more amazing than the already astonishing description (I get the sense that the red paint was added by a later hand, but, alas, I am unable to find an explanation for the brightness of the color).  The stone was discovered in an ancient cemetery in Smiss in the När parish.  Scholars and archaeologists have dated the stone’s construction back to 400–600 AD, the late Vendel era when great migrations changed the Germanic world–but all of the experts disagree concerning the stone’s meaning and purpose.

The "Hall of Picture Stones" at the Gotland Museum in Visby

The “Hall of Picture Stones” at the Gotland Museum in Visby

Some historians (the reputable ones) believe the stone shows a pagan goddess or sorceress…perhaps Hyrrokkin (a snake wielding giantess) or maybe some unknown deity left out of the Eddas.  Other thinkers have speculated that the stone depicts a Minoan snake goddess (although who knows how she got to Gotland from Crete), Odin making love (?), or Daniel in the lion’s den (???).   I am usually good at determining how people perceive visual art, but I confess to being perplexed by these latter interpretations.  The lovely knots and sinuous serpentine animals look very much like Celtic, Pictish, and Mercian designs to me–which would comfortably place the stone’s figures within the cryptic North Sea pantheon of late antiquity.  Unfortunately, there is little and less which is certain about the faith and folktales of that time.  We are left with a haunting beautiful sacred stone, but like so many of the most compelling statues from humanity’s history, the real meaning slips from our grasp and we are left with haunting conjecture.

The Snake-Witch Stone surrounded by other ancient picture stones from Gotland

The Snake-Witch Stone surrounded by other ancient picture stones from Gotland

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