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HECATE, the Grecian goddess of the infernal regions, presided over magic and enchantment, and may fairly be styled the goddess, queen, and patroness of Witches and sorcerers. She was acquainted with the properties of every herb, and imparted this knowledge to her daughters Medea and Circe. To this trio of classical Witches were specially consecrated the following herbs:—The Mandrake, the Deadly Nightshade, the Common Nightshade, the Wolfs-bane, the Pontic Azalea, the Cyclamen, the Cypress, Lavender, Hyssop-leaved Mint, the Poley or Mountain Germander, the Ethiopian Pepper, the Corn Feverfew, the Cardamom, the Musk Mallow, the Oriental Sesame, the rough Smilax, the Lion’s-foot Cudweed (a love philtre), and Maidenhair, a plant particularly dear to Pluto. Medea was specially cognisant of the qualities of the Meadow Saffron, Safflower, Dyer’s Alkanet, the clammy Plantain or Fleawort, the Chrysanthemum, and the brown-berried Juniper. All these plants are, therefore, persistently sought for by Witches, who have not only the power of understanding and appreciating the value of herbs, but know also how to render harmless and innocuous plants baleful and deadly. Thus we find that an Italian Witch, condemned in 1474, was shown to have sown a certain noxious powder amidst the herbage near her dwelling, and the unfortunate cows, stricken at first with the Evil Eye, were at length attacked with a lingering but deadly malady. So, again, in the ‘Tempest,’ Shakspeare tells us that in the magic rings traced on the grass by the dance of the Elves, the herbage is imbued with a bitterness which is noisome to cattle. These rings, which are often to be met with on the Sussex Downs, are there called Hag-tracks, because they are thought to be caused by hags and Witches who dance there at night.
It is recorded that, during the period of the Witch persecutions, whoever found himself unexpectedly under an Elder-tree was involuntarily seized with such horror, that he in all probability fell into an ecstatic or hysterical state. Although not one of the trees dedicated to Hecate and her Witch progeny, the Elder appears to have invariably possessed a certain weird attraction for mischievous Elves and Witches, who are fond of seeking the shelter of its pendent boughs, and are wont to bury their satanic offspring, with certain cabalistic ceremonies, beneath its roots.
The ill-omened Cercis Siliquastrum, or Judas Tree, is reputed to be specially haunted by Witches, who experience a grim pleasure in assembling around the tree on which the traitorous disciple is said to have hung himself. Perhaps it is they who have spread the tradition that death overtakes anyone who is unfortunate enough to fall into one of these trees.
The Witches of the Tyrol are reputed to have a great partiality for Alder-trees.
Witches are fond of riding about through the air in the dead of night, and perform long journeys to attend their meetings. Matthison tells us that
“From the deep mine rush wildly out
The troop of Gnomes in hellish rout:
Forth to the Witches’ club they fly;
The Griffins watch as they go by.
The horn of Satan grimly sounds;
On Blocksberg’s flanks strange din resounds,
And Spectres crowd its summit high.”
Their favourite steeds for these midnight excursions are besoms, which are generally to be found ready to hand; but the large Ragwort (which in Ireland is called the Fairies’ Horse) is highly prized for aerial flights. Bulrushes are also employed for locomotive purposes, and other plants are used for equipments, as we read in ‘The Witch of Fife’:—
“The first leet night, quhan the new moon set,
Quhan all was dousse and mirk,
We saddled our naigis wi’ the Moon-fern leif,
And rode fra Kilmerrin Kirk.
Some horses were of the Brume-cane framit,
And some of the greine Bay-tree,
But mine was made of are Humloke schaw,
And a stout stallion was he.”
William of Auverne, who wrote in the thirteenth century, states that when the Witches of his time wished to go to the place of rendezvous, they took a Reed or Cane, and, on making some magical signs, and uttering certain barbarous words, it became transformed into a horse, which carried them thither with extraordinary rapidity.
If the Witches are married, it becomes necessary to administer to their husbands a potion that shall cause them to slumber and keep them asleep during the Witches’ absence in the night. For this purpose the Sleep-Apple, a mossy sort of excrescence on the Wild Rose, and Hawthorn (called in the Edda Sleep-Thorn), are employed, because they will not allow anyone to awake till they are taken away. A very favourite plant made use of by American Witches to produce a similar result, is the Flor de Pesadilla, or Nightmare Flower of Buenos Ayres, a small, dark-green foliaged plant, with lanceolate leaves and clusters of greenish-white flowers, which emit a powerful narcotic smell. From the acrid milky juice pressed from the stem of this plant, Witches obtain a drug which, administered to their victims, keeps them a prey all night to terrible dreams, from which they awake with a dull throbbing sensation in the brain, while a peculiar odour pervades the chamber, causing the air to appear heavy and stifling.
Ben Jonson, in his ‘Masque of Queens,’ introduces therein a conventicle of Witches, who, as part of the business which has brought them together, relate their deeds. One of the hags, who has been gathering that mysterious plant of superstition, the Mandragora, croaks:—
“I last night lay all alone
On the ground, to hear the Mandrake groan;
And plucked him up, though he grew full low;
And, as I had done, the cock did crow.”
Another, whose sinister proceedings have excited the neighbouring watch-dogs, remarks:—
“And I ha’ been plucking plants among
Hemlock, Henbane, Adder’s-tongue;
Nightshade, Moonwort, Libbard’s-bane,
And twice by the dogs was like to be ta’en.”
And a third, who has procured a supply of the plants needful for the working of the Witches’ spells, says:—
“Yes, I have brought to help our vows
Homed Poppy, Cypress boughs,
The Fig-tree wild that grows on tombs,
And juice that from the Larch-tree comes.”
One of the principal results of the knowledge possessed by Witches of the properties of herbs was the concoction by them of noxious or deadly potions with which they were enabled to work their impious spells. Ovid tells us how Medea, in compounding a poisonous draught, employed Monk’s-hood or Wolfs-bane, the deadly Aconitum, that sprang up from the foam of the savage many-headed Cerberus, the watch-dog of the infernal regions:—
“Medea to dispatch a dang’rous heir
(She knew him) did a poisonous draught prepare,
Drawn from a drug long while reserved in store,
For desp’rate uses, from the Scythian shore,
That from the Echidnæan monster’s jaws
Derived its origin.”
Medea’s sister, the Enchantress Circe, having been neglected by a youth for whom she had conceived a passion, turned him, by means of a herb potion, into a brutal shape, for
“Love refused, converted to disdain.
Then, mixing powerful herbs with magic art,
She changed his form who could not change his heart.”
So intimate was the acquaintance of this celebrated Witch with the subtle properties of all plants, that by the aid of the noxious juices she extracted from them, she was enabled to exercise marvellous powers of enchantment. At her bidding,
“Now strange to tell, the plants sweat drops of blood,
The trees are toss’d from forests where they stood;
Blue serpents o’er the tainted herbage slide,
Pale glaring spectres on the æther ride.”
Circe was assiduous in “simpling on the flow’ry hills,” and her attendants were taught to despise the ordinary occupations of women: they were unburdened by household cares,
“But culled, in canisters, disastrous flowers
And plants from haunted heaths and Fairy bowers,
With brazen sickles reap’d at planetary hours
Each dose the goddess weighed with watchful eye;
So nice her art in impious pharmacy.”
Old Gerarde tells us that Circe made use in her incantations and witchcrafts of the Mullein or Hag-taper (Verbascum Thapsus); and Gower relates of Medea that she employed the Feldwode, which is probably the same plant, its Anglo-Saxon name being Feldwyrt.
“Tho toke she Feldwode and Verveine,
Of herbes ben nought better tweine.”
The composition of philtres, and the working of spells and incantations to induce love, are amongst the most highly prized of witches’ functions, investing them with a power which they delight to wield, and leading to much pecuniary profit.
In Moore’s ‘Light of the Haram,’ the Enchantress Namouna, who was acquainted with all spells and talismans, instructs Nourmahall to gather at midnight—“the hour that scatters spells on herb and flower”—certain blossoms that, when twined into a wreath, should act as a spell to recall her Selim’s love. The flowers gathered, the Enchantress proceeds to weave the magic chaplet, singing the while—
“I know where the wing’d visions dwell
That around the night-bed play;
I know each herb and floweret’s bell,
Where they hide their wings by day;
Then hasten we, maid,
To twine our braid,
To-morrow the dreams and flowers will fade.
“The image of love, that nightly flies
To visit the bashful maid;
Steals from the Jasmine flower, that sighs
Its soul, like her, in the shade.
The dream of a future happier hour,
That alights on misery’s brow,
Springs out of the silvery Almond flower
That blooms on a leafless bough.
“The visions that oft to worldly eyes
The glitter of mines unfold,
Inhabit the mountain herb that dyes
The tooth of the fawn like gold.
The phantom shapes—oh, touch not them!—
That appal the murderer’s sight,
Lurk in the fleshly Mandrake’s stem,
That shrieks when pluck’d at night!
“The dream of the injur’d, patient mind,
That smiles at the wrongs of men,
Is found in the bruis’d and wounded rind
Of the Cinnamon, sweetest then.
Then hasten we, maid,
To twine our braid,
To-morrow the dreams and flowers will fade.”
The chief strength of poor witches lies in the gathering and boiling of herbs. The most esteemed herbs for their purposes are the Betony-root, Henbane, Mandrake, Deadly Nightshade, Origanum, Antirrhinum, female Phlox, Arum, Red and White Celandine, Millefoil, Horned Poppy, Fern, Adder’s-tongue, and ground Ivy. Root of Hemlock, “digged in the dark,” slips of Yew, “slivered in the moon’s eclipse,” Cypress, Wild Fig, Larch, Broom, and Thorn are also associated with Witches and their necromancy. The divining Gall-apple of the Oak, the mystic Mistletoe, the Savin, the Moonwort, the Vervain, and the St. John’s Wort are considered magical, and therefore form part of the Witches’ pharmacopœia—to be produced as occasion may require, and their juices infused in the hell-broths, philtres, potions, and baleful draughts prepared for their enemies. Cuckoo-flowers are gathered in the meadows on the first of May. Chervil and Pennyroyal are used because they both have the effect of making anyone tasting their juices see double. Often many herbs are boiled together—by preference seven or nine. Three kinds of wood make bewitched water boil. Witch-ointments, to be effective, must contain seven herbs.
One of the favourite remedies of Scotch Witches is the Woodbine or Honeysuckle. In effecting their magical cures, they cause their patients to pass a certain number of times (usually nine) through a “girth” or garland of Woodbine, repeating the while certain incantations and invocations. According to Spenser, Witches in the Spring of every year were accustomed to do penance, and purify themselves by bathing in water wherein Origane and Thyme had been placed:—
“Till on a day (that day is every Prime,
When witches wont do penance for their crime)
I chaunst to see her in her proper hew,
Bathing herself in Origane and Thyme.”
In Lower Germany, the Honeysuckle is called Albranke, the Witch-snare. Long running plants and entangled twigs are called Witch-scapes, and the people believe that a Witch hard pursued could escape by their means.
On the Walpurgisnacht, the German Witches are wont to gather Fern to render themselves invisible. As a protection against them, the country people, says Aubrey, “fetch a certain Thorn, and stick it at their house door, believing the Witches can then do them no harm.” On the way to the orgies of this night, the Oldenburg Witches are reputed to eat up all the red buds of the Ash, so that on St. John’s Day the Ash-trees appear denuded of them.
The German Witches are cunning in the use and abuse of roots: for example, they recommend strongly the Meisterwurzel (root of the master), the Bärwurzel (root of the bears), the Eberwurzel (root of the wild boar), and the Hirschwurzel (root of the stag—a name given to the Wild Parsley, to the Black Gentian, and to the Thapsia), as a means of making a horse run for three consecutive days without feeding him.
On St. John’s Eve, the Witches of Russia are busily engaged searching on the mountains for the Gentiana amarella, and on the morning of St. John’s Day, for the Lythrum silicaria, without having found which no one can hope to light upon the former herb. These herbs being hostile to Witches, are sought by them only to be destroyed.
In Franche-Comté they tell of a certain satanic herb, of which the juice gives to Witches the power of riding in the air on a broomstick when they wish to proceed to their nocturnal meeting.