THE FOLK-LORE OF PLANTS
The importance attached to dreams in all primitive and savage culture accounts for the significance ascribed to certain plants found by visitors to dreamland. At the outset, it may be noticed that various drugs and narcotic potions have, from time immemorial, been employed for producing dreams and visions—a process still in force amongst uncivilised tribes. Thus the Mundrucus of North Brazil, when desirous of gaining information on any special subject, would administer to their seers narcotic drinks, so that in their dreams they might be favoured with the knowledge required.
Certain of the Amazon tribes use narcotic plants for encouraging visions, and the Californian Indians, writes Mr. Tylor, "would give children narcotic potions, to gain from the ensuing visions information about their enemies;" whilst, he adds, "the Darien Indians used the seeds of the Datura sanguinca to bring on in children prophetic delirium, in which they revealed hidden treasure." Similarly, the Delaware medicine-men used to drink decoctions of an intoxicating nature, "until their minds became wildered, so that they saw extraordinary visions."
The North American Indians also held intoxication by tobacco to be supernatural ecstasy. It is curious to find a survival of this source of superstition in modern European folk-lore. Thus, on the Continent, many a lover puts the four-leaved clover under his pillow to dream of his lady-love; and in our own country, daisy-roots are used by the rustic maiden for the same purpose. The Russians are familiar with a certain herb, known as the son-trava, a dream herb, which has been identified with the Pulsatilla patens, and is said to blossom in April, and to have an azure-coloured flower. When placed under the pillow, it will induce dreams, which are generally supposed to be fulfilled. It has been suggested that it was from its title of "tree of dreams" that the elm became a prophetic tree, having been selected by Virgil in the Aeneid (vi.) as the roosting-place of dreams in gloomy Orcus:
"Full in the midst a spreading elm displayed
His aged arms, and cast a mighty shade;
Each trembling leaf with some light visions teems,
And leaves impregnated with airy dreams."
At the present day, the yarrow or milfoil is used by love-sick maidens, who are directed to pluck the mystic plant from a young man's grave, repeating meanwhile this formula:
"Yarrow, sweet yarrow, the first that I have found, In the name of Jesus Christ I pluck it from the ground; As Jesus loved sweet Mary and took her for His dear, So in a dream this night I hope my true love will appear."
Indeed, many other plants are in demand for this species of love-divination, some of which are associated with certain days and festivals. In Sweden, for instance, "if on Midsummer night nine kinds of flowers are laid under the head, a youth or maiden will dream of his or her sweetheart." Hence in these simple and rustic love-charms may be traced similar beliefs as prevail among rude communities.
Again, among many of the American Indian tribes we find, according to Mr. Dorman, "a mythical tree or vine, which has a sacredness connected with it of peculiar significance, forming a connecting-link and medium of communication between the world of the living and the dead. It is generally used by the spirit as a ladder to pass downward and upward upon; the Ojibways having possessed one of these vines, the upper end of which was twined round a star." He further adds that many traditions are told of attempts to climb these heavenly ladders; and, "if a young man has been much favoured with dreams, and the people believe he has the art of looking into futurity, the path is open to the highest honours. The future prophet puts down his dreams in pictographs, and when he has a collection of these, if they prove true in any respect, then this record of his revelations is appealed to as proof of his prophetic power." But, without enumerating further instances of these savage dream-traditions, which are closely allied with the animistic theories of primitive culture, we would turn to those plants which modern European folk-lore has connected with dreamland. These are somewhat extensive, but a brief survey of some of the most important ones will suffice to indicate their general significance.
Firstly, to dream of white flowers has been supposed to prognosticate death; with which may be compared the popular belief that "if a white rosebush puts forth unexpectedly, it is a sign of death to the nearest house;" dream-omens in many cases reflecting the superstitions of daily life. In Scotch ballads the birch is associated with the dead, an illustration of which we find in the subjoined lines:—
"I dreamed a dreary dream last nicht;
God keep us a' frae sorrow!
I dreamed I pu'd the birk sae green,
Wi' my true love on Yarrow.
I'll redde your dream, my sister dear,
I'll tell you a' your sorrow;
You pu'd the birk wi' your true love;
He's killed,—he's killed on Yarrow."
Of the many plants which have been considered of good omen when seen in dreams, may be mentioned the palm-tree, olive, jasmine, lily, laurel, thistle, thorn, wormwood, currant, pear, &c.; whereas the greatest luck attaches to the rose. On the other hand, equally numerous are the plants which denote misfortune. Among these may be included the plum, cherry, withered roses, walnut, hemp, cypress, dandelion, &c. Beans are still said to produce bad dreams and to portend evil; and according to a Leicestershire saying, "If you wish for awful dreams or desire to go crazy, sleep in a bean-field all night." Some plants are said to foretell long life, such as the oak, apricot, apple, box, grape, and fig; and sickness is supposed to be presaged by such plants as the elder, onion, acorn, and plum.
Love and marriage are, as might be expected, well represented in the dream-flora; a circumstance, indeed, which has not failed to impress the young at all times. Thus, foremost amongst the flowers which indicate success in love is the rose, a fact which is not surprising when it is remembered how largely this favourite of our gardens enters into love-divinations. Then there is the clover, to dream of which foretells not only a happy marriage, but one productive of wealth and prosperity. In this case, too, it must be remembered the clover has long been reckoned as a mystic plant, having in most European countries been much employed for the purposes of divination. Of further plants credited as auguring well for love affairs are the raspberry, pomegranate, cucumber, currant, and box; but the walnut implies unfaithfulness, and the act of cutting parsley is an omen that the person so occupied will sooner or later be crossed in love. This ill-luck attached to parsley is in some measure explained from the fact that in many respects it is an unlucky plant. It is a belief, as we have noticed elsewhere, widely spread in Devonshire, that to transplant parsley is to commit a serious offence against the guardian genius who presides over parsley-beds, certain to be punished either on the offender himself or some member of his family within the course of the year. Once more "to dream of cutting cabbage," writes Mr. Folkard, "Denotes jealousy on the part of wife, husband, or lover, as the case may be. To dream of any one else cutting them portends an attempt by some person to create jealousy in the loved one's mind. To dream of eating cabbages implies sickness to loved ones and loss of money." The bramble, an important plant in folk-lore, is partly unlucky, and, "To dream of passing through places covered with brambles portends troubles; if they prick you, secret enemies will do you an injury with your friends; if they draw blood, expect heavy losses in trade." But to dream of passing through brambles unhurt denotes a triumph over enemies. To dream of being pricked with briars, says the "Royal Dream Book," "shows that the person dreaming has an ardent desire to something, and that young folks dreaming thus are in love, who prick themselves in striving to gather their rose."
Some plants are said to denote riches, such as the oak, marigold, pear and nut tree, while the gathering of nuts is said to presage the discovery of unexpected wealth. Again, to dream of fruit or flowers out of season is a bad omen, a notion, indeed, with which we find various proverbs current throughout the country. Thus, the Northamptonshire peasant considers the blooming of the apple-tree after the fruit is ripe as a certain omen of death—a belief embodied in the following proverb:
"A bloom upon the apple-tree when the apples are ripe,
Is a sure termination to somebody's life."
And once more, according to an old Sussex adage—
"Fruit out of season
Sounds out of reason."
On the other hand, to dream of fruit or any sort of crop during its proper season is still an indication of good luck. Thus it is lucky to dream of daisies in spring-time or summer, but just the reverse in autumn or winter. Without enumerating further instances of this kind, we may quote the subjoined rhyme relating to the onion, as a specimen of many similar ones scattered here and there in various countries:
"To dream of eating onions means
Much strife in thy domestic scenes,
Secrets found out or else betrayed,
And many falsehoods made and said."
Many plants in dream-lore have more than one meaning attached to them. Thus from the, "Royal Dream Book" we learn that yellow flowers "predict love mixed with jealousy, and that you will have more children to maintain than what justly belong to you." To dream of garlic indicates the discovery of hidden treasures, but the approach of some domestic quarrel.
Cherries, again, indicate inconstancy; but one would scarcely expect to find the thistle regarded as lucky; for, according to an old piece of folk-lore, to dream of being surrounded by this plant is a propitious sign, foretelling that the person will before long have some pleasing intelligence. In the same way a similar meaning in dream-lore attaches to the thorn.
According to old dream-books, the dreaming of yew indicates the death of an aged person, who will leave considerable wealth behind him; while the violet is said to devote advancement in life. Similarly, too, the vine foretells prosperity, "for which," says a dream interpreter, "we have the example of Astyages, king of the Medes, who dreamed that his daughter brought forth a vine, which was a prognostic of the grandeur, riches, and felicity of the great Cyrus, who was born of her after this dream."
Plucking ears of corn signifies the existence of secret enemies, and Mr. Folkard quotes an old authority which tells us that the juniper is potent in dreams. Thus, "it is unlucky to dream of the tree itself, especially if the person be sick; but to dream of gathering the berries, if it be in winter, denotes prosperity. To dream of the actual berries signifies that the dreamer will shortly arrive at great honours and become an important person. To the married it foretells the birth of a male child."
Again, eating almonds signifies a journey, its success or otherwise being denoted by their tasting sweet or the contrary. Dreaming of grass is an auspicious omen, provided it be green and fresh; but if it be withered and decayed, it is a sign of the approach of misfortune and sickness, followed perhaps by death. Woe betide, too, the person who dreams that he is cutting grass.
Certain plants produce dreams on particular occasions. The mugwort and plantain have long been associated with Midsummer; and, according to Thomas Hill in his "Natural and Artificial Conclusions," a rare coal is to be found under these plants but one hour in the day, and one day in the year. When Aubrey happened to be walking behind Montague House at twelve o'clock on Midsummer day, he relates how he saw about twenty-two young women, most of them well dressed, and apparently all very busy weeding. On making inquiries, he was informed that they were looking for a coal under the root of a plantain, to put beneath their heads that night, when they would not fail to dream of their future husbands. But, unfortunately for this credulity, as an old author long ago pointed out, the coal is nothing but an old dead root, and that it may be found almost any day and hour when sought for. By lovers the holly has long been supposed to have mystic virtues as a dream-plant when used on the eve of any of the following festivals:
New Year's Day,
According to the mode of procedure practised in the northern counties, the anxious maiden, before retiring to rest, places three pails full of water in her bedroom, and then pins to her night-dress three leaves of green holly opposite to her heart, after which she goes to sleep. Believing in the efficacy of the charm, she persuades herself that she will be roused from her first slumber by three yells, as if from the throats of three bears, succeeded by as many hoarse laughs.
When these have died away, the form of her future husband will appear, who will show his attachment to her by changing the position of the water-pails, whereas if he have no particular affection he will disappear without even touching them.
Then, of course, from time immemorial all kinds of charms have been observed on St. Valentine's Day to produce prophetic dreams. A popular charm consisted of placing two bay leaves, after sprinkling them with rose-water, across the pillow, repeating this formula:—
"Good Valentine, be kind to me,
In dream let me my true love see."
St. Luke's Day was in years gone by a season for love-divination, and among some of the many directions given we may quote the subjoined, which is somewhat elaborate:—
"Take marigold flowers, a sprig of marjoram, thyme, and a little wormwood; dry them before a fire, rub them to powder, then sift it through a fine piece of lawn; simmer these with a small quantity of virgin honey, in white vinegar, over a slow fire; with this anoint your stomach, breasts, and lips, lying down, and repeat these words thrice:—
'St Luke, St. Luke, be kind to me,
In dream let me my true love see!'
This said, hasten to sleep, and in the soft slumbers of night's repose,
the very man whom you shall marry shall appear before you."
Lastly, certain plants have been largely used by gipsies and fortune-tellers for invoking dreams, and in many a country village these are plucked and given to the anxious inquirer with various formulas.
1. "Primitive Culture," 1873, ii. 416, 417.
2. See Dorman's "Primitive Superstition," p. 68.
3. Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," 1851, ii. 108.
4. "Primitive Superstitions," p. 67.
5. "Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 265.
6. Quoted in Brand's "Popular Antiquities," 1849, iii. 135.
7. See Friend's "Flower-Lore," i. 207.
8. Folkard's "Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 477.