SUPERSTITIONS CONCERNING PLANTS.
Superstitions connected with plants were more numerous than those connected with animals. We have already noticed widespread prevalence of. tree worship in early times. The Bible is full of evidence bearing upon this point, from the earliest period of Jewish history until the time of the captivity. Even concerning those Kings of Judah and Israel who are recorded to have walked in the ways of their father David, it is frequently remarked of them that they did not remove or hew down the groves, but permitted them to remain a snare to the people. In several instances the word translated grove cannot properly be applicable to a grove of trees, but must signify something much smaller, for it is in these instances described as being located in the temple. It can therefore refer only to a tree or stump of a tree, or it may be only the symbol of a tree. The story of the tree of good and evil, and the tree of life, has been the origin of many superstitious notions regarding trees. The notion that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was an apple tree, caused the apple to have a great many mystic meanings, and gave it a prominent place in many legends, and also brought it into prominence as a divining medium. In many parts of Scotland the apple was believed to have
great influence in love affairs. If an apple seed were shot between the fingers it was understood that it would, by the direction of its flight, indicate the direction from which that person's future partner in life would come.
If a couple took an apple on St. John's eve and cut it in two. and if the seeds on each half were found to be equal in
number, this was a token that these two would be soon united in marriage; or if the halves contained an unequal number of seeds, the one who possessed the half with the greater number would be married first. If a seed were cut in two, it denoted tremble to the party holding the larger portion of the seed. If two seeds were cut, it denoted early death or widowhood to one of the parties.
If the apple were sour or sweet, the flavour indicated the temper of the parties. There was a practice common among young people of peeling an apple in an unbroken peel, and throwing the peeled skin over the right shoulder in order to ascertain from the manner in which it fell, first, whether the person who threw it would be married soon, and second, the trade or profession of the person to whom they would be married. If the skin after being thrown
remained unbroken, they would be married soon, and the person to whom they would be married was ascertained
from the form which the fallen skin presented; this form might assume the shape of a letter, in that case it was the initial letter of the unknown parties name, or it might assume the form of some trade tool, &c. Imagination had free scope here. The apple tree itself was considered a lucky tree to have near a house, but its principal virtue lay in the fruit.
Holly. This name is probably a corruption of the word holy, as this plant has been used from time
immemorial as a protection against evil influence. It was hung round, or planted near houses, as a protection against lightning. Its common use at Christmas is apparently the survival of an ancient Roman custom, occurring during the festival to Saturn, to which god the holly was dedicated. While the Romans were holding this feast, which occurred about the time of the winter solstice, they decked the outsides of their houses with holly; at the same time the Christians were quietly celebrating the birth of Christ, and to avoid detection they outwardly followed the custom of their heathen neighbours, and decked their houses with holly also. In this way the holly came to be connected with our Christmas customs. (See chapter on Festivals.) This plant was also regarded as a symbol of the resurrection. The use of mistletoe along with holly is probably due to the notion that in winter the fairies took shelter under its leaves, and that they protected all who sheltered the plant. The origin of kissing under the mistletoe is considered to have come from our Saxon ancestors, who regarded this plant as dedicated to Friga, the goddess of love.
The Aspen was said to have been the tree on which Judas hanged himself after the betrayal of his Master, and ever since its leaves have trembled with shame.
The Ash had wonderful influence. The old Christmas log was of ash wood, and the use of it at this time was
helpful to the future prosperity of the family. Venomous animals, it was said, would not take shelter under its branches. A carriage with its axles made of ash wood was believed to go faster than a carriage with its axles made of any other wood; and tools with handles made of this wood were supposed to enable a man to do
more work than he could do with tools whose handles were not of ash. Hence the reason that ash wood is generally used for tool handles. It was upon ash branches that witches were enabled to ride through the air; and those who ate on St. John's eve the red buds of the tree, were rendered invulnerable to witch influence.
The Hazel was dedicated to the god Thor, and, in the Roman Catholic Church, was esteemed a plant of great virtue for the cure of fevers. When used as a divining rod, the rod, if it were cut on St. John's Day or Good Friday, would be certain to be a successful instrument of divination. A hazel rod was a badge of authority, and it was probably this notion which caused it to be made use of by school masters. Among the Romans, a hazel rod was also a symbol of authority.
The Willow, as might be expected, had many superstitious notions connected with it, since, according to the authorized version of the English Bible, the Israelites are said to have hung their harps on willow trees. The weeping willow is said to have, ever since the time of the Jews' captivity in Babylon, drooped its branches, in sympathy with this circumstance. The common willow was held to be under the protection of the devil, and it was said that, if any were to cast a knot upon a young willow, and sit under it, and there upon renounce his or her baptism, the devil would confer upon them supernatural power.
The Elder, or Bourtree, had wonderful influence as a protection against evil. Wherever it grew, witches were powerless. In this country, gardens were protected by having elder trees planted at the entrance, and some
times hedges of this plant were trained round the garden. There are very few old gardens in country places in which
are not still seen remains of the protecting elder tree. In my boyhood, I remember that my brothers, sisters, and myself were warned against breaking a twig or branch from the elder hedge which surrounded my grandfather's garden. We were told at the time, as a reason for this prohibition, that it was poisonous; but we discovered afterwards that there was another reason, viz., that it was unlucky to break off even a small twig from a bourtree bush. In some parts of the Continent this superstitious feeling is so strong that, before pruning it, the gardener says—"Elder, elder, may I cut thy branches?" If no response be heard, it is considered that assent has been given, and then, after spitting three times, the pruner begins his cutting. According to Montanus, elder wood formed a portion of the fuel used in the burning of human bodies as a protection against evil influences; and, within my own recollection, the driver of a hearse had his whip handle made of elder wood for a similar reason. In some parts of Scotland, people would not put a piece of elder wood into the fire, and I have seen, not many years ago, pieces of this wood lying about unused, when the neighbourhood was in great straits for firewood; but none would use it, and when asked why? the answer was—"We don't know, but folks say it is not lucky to burn the bourtree." It was
believed that children laid in a cradle made in whole or in part of elderwood, would not sleep well, and were in danger of falling out of the cradle. Elderberries, gathered on St. John's Eve, would prevent the possessor suffering from witchcraft, and often bestowed
upon their owners magical powers. If the elder were planted in the form of a cross upon a new-made grave, and if it bloomed, it was a sure sign that the soul of the dead person was happy.
The Onion was regarded as a symbol of the universe among the ancient Egyptians, and many curious beliefs were associated with it. It was believed by them that it attracted and absorbed infectious matters, and was usually hung up in rooms to prevent maladies. This belief in the absorptive virtue of the onion is prevalent even at the present day. When a youth, I remember the following story being told, and implicitly believed by all. There was once a certain king or nobleman who was in want of a physician, and two celebrated doctors applied. As both could not obtain the situation, they agreed among themselves that the one was to try to poison the other, and he who succeeded in overcoming the poison would thus be left free to fill the situation. They drew lots as to who should first take the poison. The first dose given was a stewed toad, but the party who took it immediately applied a poultice of peeled onions over his stomach, and thus abstracted all the poison of the toad. Two days after, the other doctor was given the onions to eat. He ate them, and died.
It was generally believed that a poultice of peeled onions laid on the stomach, or underneath the armpits, would cure any one who had taken poison. My mother would never use onions which had lain for any length of time with their skins off.
So. lately as 1849, Mr. J. B. Wolff, in the Scientific American, states that he had charge of one hundred men on shipboard, cholera raging among them; they
had onions on board, which a number of the men freely ate, and these were soon attacked by the cholera and nearly all died. As soon as this discovery was made, the eating of the onions was forbidden. Mr. Wolff came to the conclusion that onions should never be eaten during an epidemic; he remarks, "After many years experience, I have found that onions placed in a room where there is small-pox, will blister and decompose with great rapidity, not only so, but will prevent the spread of disease;" and he thinks that, as a disinfectant, they have no equal, only keep them out of the stomach.
It was believed that, when peeling onions, if an onion were stuck on the point of the knife which was being used, it would prevent the eyes being affected.
The common Fern, it was believed, was in flower at midnight on St. John's Eve, and whoever got possession of the flower would be protected from all evil influences, and would obtain a revelation of hidden treasure.
St.-Johns-Wort. In heathen mythology the summer solstice was a day dedicated to the sun, and was believed to be a day on which witches held their festivities. St. John's-Wort was their symbolical plant, and people were won't to judge from it whether their future would be lucky or unlucky; as it grew they read in its progressive character their future lot. The Christians dedicated this festive period to St. John the Baptist, and the sacred plant was named St. -John's-Wort or root, and became a talisman against evil. In one of the old romantic ballads a young lady falls in love with a demon, who tells her
"Gin you wish to be Leman mine, Lay aside the St.-John's-wort and the vervain.''
When hung up on St. John's day together with a cross over the doors of houses it kept out the devil and other evil spirits. To gather the root on St. John's day morning at sunrise, and retain it in the house, gave luck to the family in their undertakings, especially in those begun on that day. Plants with lady attached to their names were in ancient times dedicated to some goddess; and in Christian times the term was transferred to the Virgin Mary. Such plants have good qualities, conferring protection and favour on their possessors.
From the earliest times the Rose has been an emblem of silence. Eros, in the Greek mythology, presents a rose to the god of silence, and to this day sub rosa, or "under the rose," means the keeping of a secret. Roses were used in very early times as a potent ingredient in love philters. In Greece it was customary to leave be quests for the maintenance of rose gardens, a custom which has come down to recent times. Rose gardens were common during the middle ages. According to Indian mythology, one of the wives of Vishna was found in a rose. In Rome it was the custom to bless the rose on a certain Sunday, called Rose Sunday. The custom of blessing the golden rose came into vogue about the eleventh century. The golden rose thus consecrated was given to princes as a mark of the Roman Pontifs' favour. In the east it is still believed that the first rose was generated by a tear of the prophet Mahomet, and it is further believed that on a certain day in the year the rose has a heart of gold. In the West of Scotland if a white rose bloomed in autumn it was a token of early death to some one, but if a red rose did the same, it was a token of an early marriage. The red rose, it
was said, would not bloom over a grave. If a young girl had several lovers, and wished to know which of them would be her husband, she would taJce a rose leaf for each of her sweethearts, and naming each leaf after the name of one of her lovers, she would watch them till one after another they sank, and the last to sink would be her future husband. Rose leaves thrown upon a fire gave good luck. If a rose bush were pruned on St. John's eve, it would bloom again in the autumn. Superstitions respecting the rose are more numerous in England than in Scotland.
The Lily had a sacredness associated with it, probably on account of Christ's reference to it. It was employed as a charm against evil influence, and as an antidote to love philters; but I am not aware of any of these uses being put in practice during this century.
The four-leaved Clover had extraordinary influence in preserving its possessor from magical and witch influence,
and enabled their possessors also to see through any deceit or device which might be tried against them. I have seen a group of young women within these few years searching eagerly for this charmed plant.
The Oak, from time immemorial, has held a high place as a sacred tree. The Druids worshipped the oak, and performed many of their rites under the shadow of its branches. When Augustine preached Christianity to the ancient Britons, he stood under an oak tree. The ancient Hebrews evidently held the oak as a sacred tree. There is a tradition that Abraham received his heavenly visitors under an oak. Rebekah's nurse was buried under an oak, called afterwards the oak of weeping. Jacob buried the idols of Shechem under an oak. It was
under the oak of Ophra, Gideon saw the angel sitting, who gave him instructions as to what he was to do to free Israel. When Joshua and Israel made a covenant to serve God, a great stone was set up in evidence under an oak that was by the sanctuary of the Lord. The prophet sent to prophesy against Jeroboam was
found at Bethel sitting under an oak. Saul and his sons were buried under an oak, and, according to Isaiah, idols were made of oak wood. Abimelech was made king by the oak that was in Shechem. From these proofs we need not be surprised that the oak continued to be held in veneration, and was believed to possess virtues overcom
ing evil. During last century its influence in curing diseases was believed in. The toothache could be cured by boring with a nail the tooth or gum till blood came, and then driving the nail into an oak tree. A child with rupture could be cured by splitting an oak branch, and passing the child through the opening backwards three times; if the splits grew together afterwards, the child would be cured. The same was believed in as to the ash tree. In the Presbytery Records of Lanark, 1664:—
"Compeirs Margaret Reid in the same parish, (Camwath), suspect of witchcraft, and confessed she put a woman
newlie delivered, thrice through a green halshe, for helping a grinding of the bellie; and that she carried a
sick child thrice about ane aikine post for curing of it."
Such means of curing diseases were practised within this century, and many things connected with the oak were
held potent as curatives.