In the Maluku Islands, traditionally clove trees, when in blossom, were treated like pregnant women. No noise could be made around them, men needed to remove their hats before approaching them, and no fire light could come near them after dark… all for fear of startling the trees, causing them not to bear fruit or to drop their fruit too quickly, mirroring the untimely delivery of a women who had been frightened during pregnancy.
Among the M’Bengas in West Africa, when two children were born on the same day, two trees of the same kind were planted, each bound to the life of one of the children. The people danced around the trees and paid them special attention. If one of the trees were to wither and die, the corresponding child was thought to be doomed.
In England, a folk remedy for children with rickets was to pass them through a split cut in an ash tree three times at sunrise. Once this was completed, the cleft in the tree would be sealed up with mud or clay. Once the tree was sealed, so too would the child begin to heal.
An Old European folk belief is that the combination of red and white flowers in the home or at a wedding is bad luck because the colors resemble bloody bandages and thus invite sickness and death. A Russian superstition says never to give yellow flowers to your lover, or an argument will occur, possibly ending the relationship.
Plants were used in so many facets of life- for food, for shelter, for cordage, craft, and clothing… and, of course, for medicine. Its hardly surprising, then, that there is a substantial amount of botanical lore out there, and we’re going to look at just some of it today.
Perhaps one of the most famous, or infamous, mythological plants, at least in the West, is the Mandrake. Today, its quite likely that the first exposure to the mandrake for a lot of people may have come from Harry Potter. In fact, some people might be surprised that the mandrake was not simply something created by the imagination of JK Rowling! Quite the opposite! Mandrake lore has been around for a long, long time, and prior to its Harry Potter cameo, the mandrake received attention in many famous written works- Shakespeare referenced the mandrake several times, Machiavelli wrote an entire play based on it, its referenced in Samuel Becket’s “Waiting for Godot,” and, in fact, its even mentioned in the Bible in Genesis 30:14, when Rachel, Jacob’s second wife, who cannot bear children, desires the mandrake given to her sister, and Jacob’s first wife, Leah, by their eldest son, Reuben, who found the mandrake in a field… because of its reputation as being a treatment for infertility.
The association between mandrakes and fertility is something that we see again and again throughout mandrake lore, and Rachel does eventually manage to have a baby, although, in this case, it is some years after procuring the mandrake.
Now, the notion of the mandrake being mythological is a bit of a misnomer, as it is, actually, a real plant… the Mandragora officinarum. But, supernatural properties have been attributed to the mandrake for centuries and there is a really rich and fascinating folkloric presence surrounding it- so, I think it is definitely worth examining.
The root is often personified as being sort of a tiny person- sometimes male, sometimes female- and when it is dug up it emits a loud shriek that will kill any person who hears it. It is a popular bit of lore that a mandrake will grow under the gallows where a thief has been hanged- sometimes in the man’s likeness. Sometimes it is the blood or involuntary ejaculate of the hanged man that is deemed essential for the mandrake to grow, and sometimes it is found not under a gallows but rather at a crossroads where someone who has committed suicide has been buried.
There are a number of historical examples of written directions for harvesting a mandrake root successfully, so as to preserve its power without being killed by the sound of its shriek. One of the most famous techniques was explained by the famous scholar, Josephus of Jerusalem (circa 37–100 AD) :
A furrow must be dug around the root until its lower part is exposed, then a dog is tied to it, after which the person tying the dog must get away. The dog then endeavors to follow him, and so easily pulls up the root, but dies suddenly instead of his master. After this, the root can be handled without fear.
There are many superstitions involving the mandrake, and lots of regional variations. In parts of Europe, for example, it was a common folk belief that the mandrake root needed to be dressed up in little outfits made of red or white silk and bathed every Friday in red wine, and have its outfit changed on each new moon. If treated accordingly, it would speak when spoken to and answer questions about the future. Additionally, it would multiply one’s wealth… quite literally. A person would leave a coin beside the mandrake one day and the next day two coins would be there. However, if a person did this too often, the mandrake would die from exhaustion.
As a result of this common belief, as well its alleged fertility-enhancing and aphrodisiac properties, there was actually a significant trade in “false mandrakes,” particularly throughout rural areas in peasant communities. Charlatans would dig up similar-looking roots, carve them into the likenesses of little people, and peddle them to unsuspecting villagers as the real deal.
Perhaps one factor that gave rise to this compendium of lore surrounding the mandrake is the fact that the plant does contain some narcotic and anesthetic properties. Its use as an aphrodisiac and a soporific- or sleep-enhancing drug- was documented first by Discorides, the famous Greek Physician often called the “Father of Pharmacy,” who documented its use as an early anesthetic in his manuscript De Materia Medica, written between 50 and 70CE, which circulated widely for centuries, was translated into many different languages, and had a tremendous impact on the evolution of medicine and pharmacology.
Some scholars have theorized that the herb called Moly in Homer’s Odyssey is, in fact, a reference to the mandrake, although there is no decisive closure on this. Moly was said to have grown from the blood of the Giant Piccolos, who was killed by Helios, the Sun. It was said to be dangerous for mortal men to harvest, but not for the gods, and so in the Odyssey the god Hermes gives the herb to Odysseus to cure his men, who have been turned into pigs by the sorceress Circe.
Circe lived in a mansion surrounded by dense forest, and all around it roamed various animals who were actually the victims of her magic. She invited Odyssey’s men for a feast, and laced the food with a magical herb. Once they had gorged themselves, she waved her wand and transformed them into swine. Only of of the crew was suspicious from the get-go, and he escaped in time run back to the ship and warn Odysseus.
From there, the god Hermes, send by the goddess Athena, who is sort of Odysseus’s helper throughout the Odyssey, comes to the aid and gives Odysseus the magical herb moly to protect himself from Circe’s witchy ways. Hermes warns Odysseus that upon resisting her magic, Circe will attempt to seduce him- and she’ll chop off his you-know-what unless he gets her to swear upon the gods that she won’t.
Odysseus ends up freeing his men from the curse and having a year-long affair with Circe, staying on her island feasting and drinking, before finally departing… at which point he must face the treacherous stretch of sea between the two monsters, Scylla and Charybdis, which I talked about in the Greek Monsters episode.
This isn’t the only episode in The Odyssey where Odysseus has to rescue his men from the wiles of a magical herb. There is also the notorious episode of the Lotus-Eaters, which has served as an allegory for the dangers of narcotics for centuries. In that story, after being blown off course, the crew lands on an unfamiliar island whose inhabitants eat only a particular kind of intoxicating lotus flower, which induces a kind of drug-like euphoria. Several of Odysseus’s men partake in this lotus-eating and immediately lose all interest in going home, desiring instead to remain on the island eating lotuses for the rest of their lives. Odysseus drags them back onto the ship and straps them down while they cry and struggle, instructing the rest of the crew to set sail ASAP before any more of them succumb to the delusions of the intoxicating plant.
During the time of the bubonic plague in Europe, one legend emerged from France concerning what came to be known as “Four Thieves Vinegar.” According to the legend, four thieves invented the recipe for a concoction that allowed them to rob the bodies of plague victims without contracting the disease themselves. There are many variations on the legend, as well as many versions of the recipe. This is one of them, that was allegedly posted on the walls of Marseilles during an outbreak of the plague, which ultimately could have been any time between the 14th and 18th century:
Take three pints of strong white wine vinegar, add a handful of each of wormwood, meadowsweet, wild marjoram and sage, fifty cloves, two ounces of campanula roots, two ounces of angelic, rosemary and horehound and three large measures of champhor. Place the mixture in a container for fifteen days, strain and express then bottle. Use by rubbing it on the hands, ears and temples from time to time when approaching a plague victim
One of the ingredients there is sage, which, in addition to being a natural insect repellent, has a long history of association with protection from malevolent forces. The next story we’ll be looking at is a Native American myth about the origin of sage.
This story comes from the book, “When the Storm God Rides,” by Florence Stratton, which is a collection of Native American lore from south-east Texas.
Once there was a young girl who went into the desert to collect the ripe, purple fruit of the prickly pear cactus. She stayed out late, after the sun had set, and when she started home the stars were starting to come out. She noticed that one star was much brighter than all the others, and it seemed closer to earth. She watched the star, and it seemed to be winking at her.
That night, she dreamt of the star, and in her dream the star was home to an attractive young man, a sky-dweller. The following day, she returned to the desert, once again to collect the prickly pear fruit. Again, she stayed until sunset and again she watched the star. Her handsome sky-dweller was up there, and that was him winking down at her. For seven days she went out to the desert and watched the star, each night dreaming of the young man in the star, who, in her dreams, spoke of his love for her, but could not join her on earth as long as she lived there and he lived in the sky.
The girl was enamored, but unhappy now because she couldn’t be with her sky lover. She decided that she didn’t want to go on living, and she went to a medicine woman from her tribe and asked her how she could die so that she might be taken up to the sky to live in the star with her lover.
The old woman told her that life was too great a gift to be ended prematurely, and she must live out her time as the Great Spirit intended. But, she offered to transform her into a form that would allow her to live always out on the open desert, under the gaze of her lover.
This filled the girl with joy, and that night the two of them went out to the desert. The medicine woman made a powerful concoction from several plants for the girl to drink. As soon as she did, her feet began to change- turning into roots and digging into the sandy soil. Her arms became branches and her hair turned to leaves. She became a new plant that nobody had ever seen before.
When the sky youth saw what had happened, he leaned so far out of his star that he fell, breaking his star and falling towards the girl who had become a plant as pieces of stardust. The stardust coated the leaves of the plant with a white dust, and the youth became the plant’s purple flower. So, at last they were together.
The plant was purple sage, sometimes called Texas sage or ash-bush- although its not technically in the same genus as true sages, and its actually a member of the figwort family.
One plant that we’re almost certainly all familiar with for its culinary uses is garlic. In addition to being delicious, garlic has also been used medicinally and for spiritual purposes for over 7000 years by many different groups of people. Like a lot of plant lore, many of the superstitions and tales surrounding garlic do actually have a basis in science. Garlic has well-documented anti-microbial properties, and it was actually used as an antiseptic during WWI.
Samudra manthan, or churning the sea of milk, is a super important episode in Hindu mythology. The story appears in the Mahabharata, the Vishnu Purana, and the Bhagavata Purana, and we’ll look at a sort of abridged version of it today.
Within the Hindu pantheon in this sort of cosmic prehistorical time, there are the gods- devas, and their rivals, the asuras, or demons. The king of the Devas is Indra, the god of thunder. One day, while Indra is riding on the white elephant Airavata, he encounters a powerful sage called Durvasa. Durvasa gives Indra, as an offering, a garland that had been given to him by Lord Shiva. Indra placed the garland around the elephant’s trunk, sort of as a gesture of performative humility. The elephant, however, knows that Indra has no control over his own ego, and throws the garland on the ground, sometimes stomping it.
This offends and enrages the sage Durvasa, who puts a curse on Indra and all of the other Devas causing them to lose their power… which includes their power over immortal life. The start aging and growing weaker and weaker.
In their weakened state, and after losing control of the universe to the Asuras, the devas enter into an deal with the asuras that they will join forces to churn the sea of milk and share the amrit- the elixir of immortality- that comes out of it. Churning of the ocean of milk was a major undertaking, and the two sort of teams- the devas and asuras, used a mountain as a churning post, around which was wrapped the giant snake, Vasuki, who is depicted wrapped around Lord Shiva’s neck who was pulled back and forth, causing the mountain to rotate and churn the sea.
Several Ratnas- or treasures- came out of the sea- usually 14 of them, the last of which being amrit, the nectar of immortality. Of course, both sides wanted it, and fighting ensued. The devas turned to Vishnu, and I guess it could be useful to understand the devas as sort of demigods and Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma as the great gods. So, the devas go to Vishnu for help, and he assumes female form as Mohini, a beautiful enchantress.
As Mohini, Vishnu distracts the asuras with her beauty, secures the amrit, and doles it out to the devas. One of the asuras, however, called RahuKetu, saw what was happening and snuck over to join the devas. Chandra, the moon god, and Surya, the sun god noticed and told Mohini about the imposter. RahuKetu had already taken a drink of the nectar, but before it could pass through his throat Mohini cut off his head with a divine weapon called the Sudarshana Chakra, which is a spinning disk with 108 serrated edges.
Enough of the nectar had passed into his mouth, however, that the demon didn’t die, but rather his disembodied head lived on. And, in fact, his headless body also managed to live on. The head was subsequently known as Rahu, the body Ketu, and both later became planets. Rahu, the head, sometimes swallows the sun, causing eclipses.
In on fairly popular folkloric addendum to this story, droplets of the amrit, or in some cases blood, spill from Rahu’s severed head onto the ground and give rise to the plant we known today as garlic.
The next mythological plant we’re going to be looking at is one of my personal favorites. It comes from Central Asia, and is called the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, or sometimes the Barometz, and its a legendary plant that grows sheep as fruit. Barometz is a variation on the word for lamb in the Tartar language. According to legend, the sheep were connected to the plant via a stalk, and they would graze on grass surrounding the base of the plant.
Once the lamb had exhausted the grass with its reach, it would die, at which point it could be harvested and eaten. Supposedly its blood tasted sweet like honey and its fleece was whiter than snow… and according to some accounts thicker than that of 3 regular lambs combined and used to make hats and clothing.
There is a mention in the Jerusalem Talmud- a collection of Jewish Rabbinical scriptures dating form the second century AD- of the Adnei Ha-sadeh… which is described as a sort of humanoid plant. A Rabbi in the early 13th century wrote, “It is stated in the Jerusalem Talmud that the Adne Hasadeh, mentioned in the Mishna Lilaim Chap 8 vs 5) is a human being of the mountains; it lives by means of its navel; if its navel be cut, it cannot live…” He refers to this creature as the Jeduah, and describes it as follows:
“A kind of large stem issues from a root in the earth, on which this animal, called Jadua, grows, just as gourds and melons. Only the Jadua has, in all respects, a human shape, in fact, body, hands, and feet. By its navel it is joined to the stem that issues from the root. No creature can approach within the tether of the steam, for it seizes and kills them… When they want to capture it, no man dares approach it, but they tear at the stem until it is ruptured, whereupon the animal dies.”
So, there are some similarities there to our vegetable lamb, and for this reason, some scholars have drawn parallels between it and the Jedua, but this seems somewhat tenuous given the description of the Jeduah is distinctly humanoid rather than sheep-like.
Interestingly, in China, during the Han Dynasty, (5th century AD), there are documented references to something called the Shui-Yang, or watersheep, and particularly its wool… followed by more detailed descriptions of the watersheep in the 10th century during the Tang Dynasty. Translated here by Gustaaf Schlegel, the Tang Dynasty description is as follows.
There are lambs which grow in the ground. The natives wait till they are about to sprout, and then build a wall to enclose them in order to prevent beasts coming from outside devouring them. Now their navels are connected with the earth, and if these are cut, they will die. But the people (i.e. the shepherds) don their cuirasses, and gallop about on horseback, beating (all the while) on drums, in order to frighten them. The lambs then get afraid and, with a shriek, they rend their navels, and are then driven into the waterpasturages (Schlegel, 1892, p23).
So, some interesting similarities there. The Vegetable Lamb proper seemed to appeal particularly to the creators of medieval bestiaries, and there are some really wonderful drawings of this plant.
In terms of origin, it is very likely that the Barometz is, most likely, based on a real plant- probably a fern in the genus Cibotium, whose rhizome is indeed covered in fuzz and, for those with imagination, resembles a tiny beast. Some historians have also proposed that it may be based on cotton, which is also a definite possibility.
The next plant we’ll be looking at comes form Slavic folklore. It is a magical herb- sometimes described as a flowering fern- called Raskovnik that will allegedly unlock any lock or any unblock any passage, sometimes both literal and figuratively in terms of overcoming life’s obstacles. According to legend, people used to chain themselves in leg-irons and wander the countryside at night in places where the plant was rumored to grow. While not noted as being particularly rare, the plant was notoriously difficult, even impossible to recognize, so the leg-irons would assumedly help to detect it- in theory, were one to stumble upon upon the plant, the irons would unlock.
In some areas, it was believed that Raskovnik could only be found with aid of a certain animal. According to Bulgarian mythology, tortoises were the only animal that could find the herb. Legend has it that people would find a nesting tortoise, and while it was away from its nest they would build a fence around it. When the tortoise returned, it wouldn’t be able to access its eggs, so it would have to wander off and procure some Raskovnik to unlock the fence, at which point the person could obtain the herb by taking it from the tortoise. The same general practice was employed using hedgehogs in Serbia.
There are some really interesting sort of folkloric practices found in the history of the Appalachian region of the United States. These have to do, largely, with beliefs that relate cycles of planting and harvesting crops to the signs of zodiac and cycles of the moon- and, additionally, each sign correlates to different body parts, planets, and elements. For example, Pisces corresponds to the Feet, the planet Jupiter, and is a water sign.
There were ideal times to plant, replant, sow, and harvest to ensure maximum yield, and also not-so-good times. For example, if you were to plant potatoes in Pisces, which corresponds to the feet, your potatoes would develop little nubs like toes. One should plant things that fruit above ground while the moon is waxing, and root vegetables, which grow underground, should be planted when the moon is waning.
There are innumerable folk beliefs when it comes to different herbs, flowers, and trees. An old German legend tells of a boy who had climbed a tree and looked down upon a group of witches doing ghastly deeds. They had torn apart the corpse of a woman and threw the pieces into the air. The boy caught one of the pieces and held on to it. Then, when the witches counted the pieces and noticed that one was missing they substituted it with a piece of alder bark, at which point the corpse instantaneously reanimated.