2 Oct 2009
Eye of Newt? Graveyard Dust? Dragon's Blood? Were these the real ingredients in old spellbooks? Aside from the candied apples, cider and pumpkins, lots of plants are associated with Halloween--for some very strange reasons.
APPLES have their place during this holiday because they come ripe this season and are associatd with various ideas regarding knowledge, soothesaying and appeasing spirits. Being able to pare an apple with the skin in one piece took skill and is considered a portent of good luck. Tossing that long piece of skin to the floor and "reading" its shape, tells you something about what may happen in the coming year. Remember, that for the Celts, Hallows was the New Year. Apples are used to leave out for the faeries as an offering to not play devilish tricks on homeowners. And.....apples are good for you. Eating one or two a day offers an immune system boost just at the time of year we need it most- and they keep well, so we can count on their nourishment and medicine all winter. And...Cider...confers all the same benefits.
PUMPKINS are an American plant and were not part of the early Celtic Hallows (Samhain) celebrations--Turnip and rutabagas were carved instead. But, once Americans adopted this holiday, pumpkins became a much more satisfactory substitute. Like apples, they are ripe in Fall and good keepers and provide us with hearty, complex carbohydrates to get us through the winter. New studies show that they also have great immuno building properties
ROSEMARY is known as the herb of "Remembrance". This is a very heady smelling plant, vigorous and forceful. One of its many medicinal powers is to increase circulation generally, and to the head in particular--staving off dementia and helping one learn and think. Often left at gravesites, at funerals to remember the departed, Rosemary can be used also to remember all our ancestors. Making cookies with rosemary and eating them on Hallow's Eve gives us a time to think over those who came before us.
WITCH'S HERBS ~ So what of these strange formulas we have always heard about, written in the witch's spellbooks?...eyes of newt, graveyard dust......It is important to realize that "witches" were the community doctors or shamans of their time and they understood a few things about the human psyche--maybe too well--which eventually helped seal their fate during the Burning Times. Today, we go to doctors or other practitioners in a time of weakness/ill health and sort of just trust them to heal us. They wear ceremonial garb (white coats) and work in offices with strange--often scary looking objects and.. they use Latin, speaking of medicines most people can't pronounce and scrawl their potions on pieces of paper in a language we can not read. Nothing much has changed, really. Witches knew that a little mystery helps people believe and they also wanted to protect their special knowledge, so used a language only they understood and could communicate to each other, but left the general public wondering. While certainly, animal parts were (and still are) used as medicines, many of the potions were actually herbs. I'm not sure about "eyes of newt"-but would suspect some type of berry. Graveyard Dust, however, is generally thought to have been the dried, crumbled leaves of Great Mullein and Dragon's Blood is a type of Sedum that has red tinges around the edges of its leaves.
And...Could Witches Fly? It depends on your point of view! After going over old texts, it has been studied and experiments conducted as to the effects of some common herbs used by "witches" to do their healings. As most shamans would do, a "journey" would be attempted to find the best cure for a particular individual. As we know from South/North American accounts, mushrooms, peyote, etc. were commonly used to induce a trance state, so the shaman could travel to the spirit world and retrieve knowledge of a cure. European witches had other plants at their disposal for the same purposes. Atropa Belladonna (Deadly Nightshade), Hyoscyamos niger (Henbane), Aconitum nepellum (Monkshood/Wolfbane) could all be boiled in fats and applied to the skin (though many stories indicate the salve of these herbs was applied to a broom handle and inserted vaginally--as substances are absorbed very quickly on mucus membranes). These are all poisonous plants, that would be lethal if taken orally, so the slow release on skin tissue made it a bit safer--but the result(proven by modern experiments) is the sensation of flying through the air. In answering for this during the Inquisition, flying was admitted as being real--leading to massive killings of healers-men and women---and their cats (Familiars) too. And what a mess that created. Hundreds of thousands of cats were killed, leaving no predators to kill flea infested rats----the PLAGUE.
With the mass killing, much herbal knowledge was lost in Europe--being kept alive only in the far north, where the Inquisition did not reach..and in the Monastery Gardens, which became the place villagers would go for their herbal remedies. The Middle East had no comparable event, so the herbal healing discoveries continued there uninterrupted. Today, in Edinburgh, Scotland, there is a lovely, chilling and somber memorial to all the witches burned or hung on that very spot so many years ago...and people still leave flowers and offerings in their memories.
When celebrating Halloween, REMEMBER, FEAST and Leave an offering for YOUR house faeries!