The Folk-Lore of Plants By T. F. Thiselton Dyer 1889
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Folk-lore is always a fascinating study, and no branch of it offers more of peculiar interest than that of plants. Prof. Dyer, therefore, has chosen a popular theme, one that has engaged the attention of many writers before him, and the present volume is a condensation in large part from previous books and papers upon the subject. In the author's own prefatory words it is "a brief, systematic summary, with a few illustrations in each case of the many branches into which the subject naturally subdivides itself." The book before us is, therefore, a hand-book to all who are interested in the subject upon which it treats. A mention of some of the twenty-three chapters into which the work is divided will help to present a faint idea of the scope and success of Prof. Dyer's compilation. Plants in witchcraft, plants in fairy lore, love-charms, plant language, doctrine of signatures, sacred plants, plants in folk-medicine, and mystic plants; these are suggestive of the careful systematic work done by the author. It is impossible to epitomize a work of this kind which in itself is an epitome of a vast subject. The foot-notes and references, one or more on nearly every page, illustrate how very wide has been the gleaning of the painstaking author. Open the book at any page, and a pleasing, succinct statement will be found of some ancient superstition of plant spirit, plant worship, plant witchery, plant demonology, or plant legend.
Darwin, in his famous work upon "Movements of Plants," says: "Why a touch, slight pressure, or any other irritant such as electricity, heat, or the absorption of animal matter should modify the turgescence of the affected cells in such a manner as to cause movement we do not know." In the light of this frank confession of ignorance by one of the wisest of Nature's modern students it is not strange that during the early ages of the world every living thing was believed to be under the direct control of some spirit, good or evil, which was none the less real to the ignorant people because unseen. It was natural for the ancients to ascribe causes to well-established effects, and the world of plant life came in for its full share. They believed blindly in the vegetable origin of the human race—that is, man sprang from some sacred world-tree. In modem times the belief is not altogether different from this, but the method is through the gradual unfolding of the higher from the lower by the slow process of evolution. In like manner the ancients, in seeking for a divinity, ascribed superhuman power to the mighty oak, and clothed other trees as with the garb of gods. The worship of to-day is often of structures far less lofty and inspiring than the forest giants. In our time we can with profit glance back and note the growth of ideas as they broaden with the ages and see that our own idols must be broken in pieces by the relentless wheels of progress. This is one of the good features of such books as the one before us, and should make them popular, because being a history of the people in everyday life—their common thought and conversation.
Some of the most charming examples of plant lore are found in that portion having to do with fairies. Of course, the fairy itself is a pleasing myth that will require many ages to eradicate from the human mind, because it adds so much of innocent beauty to a majority of the nursery rhymes and children's tales. The whole deception of Santa Claus is one born to an endless earthly life, because having only a happy and healthful influence upon both the old who practice it and the young who are so delightfully deceived. There is a perennial pleasure in the thought that a tulip-blossom is a cradle in which mother fairies lull their little ones to sleep. To this day the finder of a four-leaved clover is considered by many as a person born to good luck—a notion that has descended from an older idea, namely, that the monstrous leaf was a talisman which enabled its wearer to detect the haunts of fairies. Much of fairy lore clusters around the so-called fairy rings, that is, the green circles in old pastures within which the elfs were supposed to dance at night by the light of the moon. Modern science has extracted the last breath of poetry from this common phenomenon and left it as a dry fact in the cyclopædias.
Flowers play no insignificant rôle in lovemaking at the present day, and no schoolgirl's botany is complete unless she can discourse fluently upon the language of flowers. Some plants are naturally symbolic of certain ideas. Thus, grass readily may stand for usefulness and the cypress for mourning, the poppy for sleep, and the trembling aspen for fear. Other plants do not carry their florigraphical meaning in plain sight, but have acquired their adopted meaning in ways that are lost in oblivion while the symbol remains. Thus the rose was dedicated to Venus by the early Romans and Greeks, and now stands for love, especially the deep red varieties. The constancy of the violet and the curiosity of the sycamore are far less evident than the weeping nature of the drooping willow.
The degree of credence given by many to the strange stories of fabulous plants is one of constant surprise to those whose knowledge shows up the traditions in their true light. The barnacle-tree is an instance to the point, and the following is a sixteenth-century description of it: "There are found in the north of Scotland and the isles adjacent, called Orcades, certain trees whereon do grow small fishes of a white color, tending to russet, wherein are contained little living creatures; which shells in time of maturity do open and out of them grow those little living things which, falling into the water, do become fowls whom we call barnacles, in the north of England brant geese, and in Lancaster tree geese; but the others that do fall upon the land perish and do come to nothing." There is more foundation in fact for this exaggeration of trees which, overhanging and dipping into water at high tide, may bear barnacles than in the wonder-working moonwort which would open locks, and unshoe horses treading upon it—certainly a very unsafe herb in the hands of unscrupulous house-breakers—providing the fable were true. Under the "doctrine of signatures" the author brings together a large amount of interesting matter illustrating the old idea that each medicinal plant has some sign of color, shape, etc., which indicates its healing power either for the whole body or for some particular organ. For example, red juice is for the blood, yellow for jaundice, the liver leaf—shaped like a liver—for the liver, etc. This doctrine was carried to an almost amusing excess. Thus, the shell of walnut, which resembles a human skull somewhat, was used for troubles of the brain. The aspen was employed for palsy; and mistletoe, a plant that grows in a suspended position, was good for dizziness.
Young people even could find much amusement in the chapter upon games, having plant lore as the basis and often set to rhyme.
Folk-lore in medicine is a vast subject receiving its full measure of treatment. Strange are many of the rhymes in this section of the subject. A single couplet is here indulged in:
"Eat an apple going to bed,
Make the doctor beg his bread,"
which is only a striking way of saying—
That apple eaten upon retiring
Is better than the doctor hiring—
a statement that may not be in accord with the teaching of the theory and practice of modern medicine.
The book before us is full of weird things that cast a peculiar light upon the past, and add new luster to the present. The human mind in the early centuries was saturated with unaccountable notions of the wildest sort. Prof. Dyer has shown a master's hand in dealing with the occult theme. He has been happy in his selections, conscientious in treatment, and clever in the grouping of the otherwise almost isolated and independent fables, superstitions, and legends.
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