Witchcraft and Plants, by T. F.
The vast proportions which the great witchcraft movement assumed in
bygone years explains the magic properties which we find ascribed to so
many plants in most countries. In the nefarious trade carried on by the
representatives of this cruel system of sorcery certain plants were
largely employed for working marvels, hence the mystic character which
they have ever since retained. It was necessary, however, that these
should be plucked at certain phases of the moon or seasons of the year,
or from some spot where the sun was supposed not to have shone on it.
Hence Shakespeare makes one of his witches speak of "root of hemlock
digg'd i' the dark," and of "slips of yew sliver'd in the moon's
eclipse," a practice which was long kept up. The plants, too, which
formed the witches' pharmacopoeia, were generally selected either from
their legendary associations or by reason of their poisonous and
soporific qualities. Thus, two of those most frequently used as
ingredients in the mystic cauldron were the vervain and the rue, these
plants having been specially credited with supernatural virtues. The
former probably derived its notoriety from the fact of its being sacred
to Thor, an honour which marked it out, like other lightning plants, as
peculiarly adapted for occult uses. It was, moreover, among the sacred
plants of the Druids, and was only gathered by them, "when the dog-star
arose, from unsunned spots." At the same time, it is noteworthy that
many of the plants which were in repute with witches for working their
marvels were reckoned as counter-charms, a fact which is not surprising,
as materials used by wizards and others for magical purposes have
generally been regarded as equally efficacious if employed against their
charms and spells. Although vervain, therefore, as the "enchanters'
plant," was gathered by witches to do mischief in their incantations,
yet, as Aubrey says, it "hinders witches from their will," a
circumstance to which Drayton further refers when he speaks of the
vervain as "'gainst witchcraft much avayling." Rue, likewise, which
entered so largely into magic rites, was once much in request as an
antidote against such practices; and nowadays, when worn on the person
in conjunction with agrimony, maiden-hair, broom-straw, and ground ivy,
it is said in the Tyrol to confer fine vision, and to point out the
presence of witches.
It is still an undecided question as to why rue should out of all other
plants have gained its widespread reputation with witches, but M. Maury
supposes that it was on account of its being a narcotic and causing
hallucinations. At any rate, it seems to have acquired at an early
period in this country a superstitious reverence, for, as Mr. Conway
says, "We find the missionaries sprinkling holy water from brushes
made of it, whence it was called 'herb of grace'."
Respecting the rendezvous of witches, it may be noted that they very
frequently resorted to hills and mountains, their meetings taking place
"on the mead, on the oak sward, under the lime, under the oak, at the
pear tree." Thus the fairy rings which are often to be met with on the
Sussex downs are known as hag-tracks, from the belief that "they are
caused by hags and witches, who dance there at midnight." Their love
for sequestered and romantic localities is widely illustrated on the
Continent, instances of which have been collected together by Grimm, who
remarks how "the fame of particular witch mountains extends over wide
kingdoms." According to a tradition current in Friesland, no woman is
to be found at home on a Friday, because on that day they hold their
meetings and have dances on a barren heath. Occasionally, too, they show
a strong predilection for certain trees, to approach which as night-time
draws near is considered highly dangerous. The Judas tree (Cercis
siliquastrum) was one of their favourite retreats, perhaps on account
of its traditionary association with the apostle. The Neapolitan witches
held their tryst under a walnut tree near Benevento, and at Bologna
the peasantry tell how these evil workers hold a midnight meeting
beneath the walnut trees on St. John's Eve. The elder tree is another
haunt under whose branches witches are fond of lurking, and on this
account caution must be taken not to tamper with it after dark.
Again, in the Netherlands, experienced shepherds are careful not to let
their flocks feed after sunset, for there are wicked elves that prepare
poison in certain plants—nightwort being one of these. Nor does any man
dare to sleep in a meadow or pasture after sunset, for, as the shepherds
say, he would have everything to fear. A Tyrolese legend relates how
a boy who had climbed a tree, "overlooked the ghastly doings of certain
witches beneath its boughs. They tore in pieces the corpse of a woman,
and threw the portions in the air. The boy caught one, and kept it by
him; but the witches, on counting the pieces, found that one was
missing, and so replaced it by a scrap of alderwood, when instantly the
dead came to life again."
Similarly, also, they had their favourite flowers, one having been the
foxglove, nicknamed "witches' bells," from their decorating their
fingers with its blossoms; while in some localities the hare-bell is
designated the "witches' thimble." On the other hand, flowers of a
yellow or greenish hue were distasteful to them.
In the witchcraft movement it would seem that certain plants were in
requisition for particular purposes, these workers of darkness having
utilised the properties of herbs to special ends. A plant was not
indiscriminately selected, but on account of possessing some virtue as
to render it suitable for any design that the witches might have in
view. Considering, too, how multitudinous and varied were their actions,
they had constant need of applying to the vegetable world for materials
with which to carry out their plans. But foremost amongst their
requirements was the power of locomotion wherewith to enable them with
supernatural rapidity to travel from one locality to another.
Accordingly, one of their most favourite vehicles was a besom or broom,
an implement which, it has been suggested, from its being a type of the
winds, is an appropriate utensil "in the hands of the witches, who are
windmakers and workers in that element." According to the Asiatic
Register for 1801, the Eastern as well as the European witches
"practise their spells by dancing at midnight, and the principal
instrument they use on such occasions is a broom." Hence, in Hamburg,
sailors, after long toiling against a contrary wind, on meeting another
ship sailing in an opposite direction, throw an old broom before the
vessel, believing thereby to reverse the wind. As, too, in the case
of vervain and rue, the besom, although dearly loved by witches, is
still extensively used as a counter-charm against their machinations—it
being a well-known belief both in England and Germany that no individual
of this stamp can step over a besom laid inside the threshold. Hence,
also, in Westphalia, at Shrovetide, white besoms with white handles are
tied to the cows' horns; and, in the rites connected with the Midsummer
fires kept up in different parts of the country, the besom holds a
prominent place. In Bohemia, for instance, the young men collect for
some weeks beforehand as many worn-out brooms as they can lay their
hands on. These, after dipping in tar, they light—running with them
from one bonfire to another—and when burnt out they are placed in the
fields as charms against blight. The large ragwort—known in Ireland
as the "fairies' horse"—has long been sought for by witches when taking
their midnight journeys. Burns, in his "Address to the Deil," makes his
witches "skim the muirs and dizzy crags" on "rag-bred nags" with "wicked
speed." The same legendary belief prevails in Cornwall, in connection
with the Castle Peak, a high rock to the south of the Logan stone. Here,
writes Mr. Hunt, "many a man, and woman too, now quietly sleeping in
the churchyard of St. Levan, would, had they the power, attest to have
seen the witches flying into the Castle Peak on moonlight nights,
mounted on the stems of the ragwort." Amongst other plants used for a
similar purpose were the bulrush and reed, in connection with-which may
be quoted the Irish tale of the rushes and cornstalks that "turn into
horses the moment you bestride them." In Germany witches were
said to use hay for transporting themselves through the air.
When engaged in their various occupations they often considered it
expedient to escape detection by assuming invisibility, and for this
object sought the assistance of certain plants, such as the
fern-seed. In Sweden, hazel-nuts were supposed to have the power of
making invisible, and it may be remembered how in one of Andersen's
stories the elfin princess has the faculty of vanishing at will, by
putting a wand in her mouth. But these were not the only plants
supposed to confer invisibility, for German folk-lore tells us how the
far-famed luck-flower was endowed with the same wonderful property; and
by the ancients the heliotrope was credited with a similar virtue, but
which Boccaccio, in his humorous tale of Calandrino in the "Decameron,"
applies to the so-called stone. "Heliotrope is a stone of such
extraordinary virtue that the bearer of it is effectually concealed from
the sight of all present."
Dante in his "Inferno," xxiv. 92, further alludes to it:
"Amid this dread exuberance of woe
Ran naked spirits winged with horrid fear,
Nor hope had they of crevice where to hide,
Or heliotrope to charm them out of view."
In the same way the agate was said to render a person invisible, and to
turn the swords of foes against themselves. The Swiss peasants
affirm that the Ascension Day wreaths of the amaranth make the wearer
invisible, and in the Tyrol the mistletoe is credited with
But some plants, as we have already pointed out, were credited with the
magic property of revealing the presence of witches, and of exposing
them engaged in the pursuit of plying their nefarious calling. In this
respect the St. John's wort was in great request, and hence it was
extensively worn as an amulet, especially in Germany on St. John's Eve,
a time when not only witches by common report peopled the air, but evil
spirits wandered about on no friendly errand. Thus the Italian name of
"devil-chaser," from the circumstance of its scaring away the workers of
darkness, by bringing their hidden deeds to light. This, moreover,
accounts for the custom so prevalent in most European countries of
decorating doorways and windows with its blossoms on St. John's Eve. In
our own country Stowe speaks of it as its having been placed over
the doors together with green birch, fennel, orpine, and white lilies,
whereas in France the peasantry still reverence it as dispersing every
kind of unseen evil influence. The elder was invested with similar
properties, which seem to have been more potent than even those
attributed to the St. John's wort. According to an old tradition, any
baptized person whose eyes were anointed with the green juice of its
inner bark could see witches in any part of the world. Hence the tree
was extremely obnoxious to witches, a fact which probably accounts for
its having been so often planted near cottages. Its magic influence has
also caused it to be introduced into various rites, as in Styria on
Bertha Night (January 6th), when the devil goes about in great
force. As a safeguard, persons are recommended to make a magic
circle, in the centre of which they should stand with elder-berries
gathered on St. John's Night. By so doing the mystic fern seed may be
obtained, which possesses the strength of thirty or forty men. In
Germany, too, a species of wild radish is said to reveal witches, as
also is the ivy, and saxifrage enables its bearer to see witches on
But, in spite of plants of this kind, witches somehow or other contrived
to escape detection by the employment of the most subtle charms and
spells. They generally, too, took the precaution of avoiding such plants
as were antagonistic to them, displaying a cunning ingenuity in most of
their designs which it was by no means easy to forestall. Hence in the
composition of their philtres and potions they infused the juices of the
most deadly herbs, such as that of the nightshade or monkshood; and to
add to the potency of these baleful draughts they considered it
necessary to add as many as seven or nine of the most poisonous plants
they could obtain, such, for instance, as those enumerated by one of the
witches in Ben Jonson's "Masque of Queens," who says:—
"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."
Another plant used by witches in their incantations was the sea or
horned poppy, known in mediaeval times as Ficus infernolis; hence it is
further noticed by Ben Jonson in the "Witches' Song":
"Yes, I have brought to help our vows,
Horned poppy, cypress boughs,
The fig tree wild that grows on tombs,
And juice that from the larch tree comes."
Then, of course, there was the wondrous moonwort (Botrychium lunaria),
which was doubly valuable from its mystic virtue, for, as Culpepper
tells us, it was believed to open locks and possess other magic virtues.
The mullein, popularly termed the hag-taper, was also in request, and
the honesty (Lunaria biennis), "in sorceries excelling," was equally
employed. By Scotch witches the woodbine was a favourite plant, who,
in effecting magical cures, passed their patients nine times through a
girth or garland of green woodbine.
Again, a popular means employed by witches of injuring their enemies was
by the briony. Coles, in his "Art of Simpling," for instance, informs us
how, "they take likewise the roots of mandrake, according to some, or,
as I rather suppose, the roots of briony, which simple folk take for the
true mandrake, and make thereof an ugly image, by which they represent
the person on whom they intend to exercise their witchcraft." And Lord
Bacon, speaking of the mandrake, says—"Some plants there are, but rare,
that have a mossie or downy root, and likewise that have a number of
threads, like beards, as mandrakes, whereof witches and impostours make
an ugly image, giving it the form of a face at the top of the root, and
leave those strings to make a broad beard down to the foot."
The witchcraft literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries
contains numerous allusions to the diabolical practice—a superstition
immortalised by Shakespeare. The mandrake, from its supposed mysterious
character, was intimately associated with witches, and Ben Jonson, in
his "Masque of Queens," makes one of the hags who has been gathering
this plant say,
"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."
We have already incidentally spoken of the vervain, St. John's wort,
elder, and rue as antagonistic to witchcraft, but to these may be added
many other well-known plants, such as the juniper, mistletoe, and
blackthorn. Indeed, the list might be greatly extended—the vegetable
kingdom having supplied in most parts of the world almost countless
charms to counteract the evil designs of these malevolent beings. In our
own country the little pimpernel, herb-paris, and cyclamen were formerly
gathered for this purpose, and the angelica was thought to be specially
noisome to witches. The snapdragon and the herb-betony had the
reputation of averting the most subtle forms of witchcraft, and dill and
flax were worn as talismans against sorcery. Holly is said to be
antagonistic to witches, for, as Mr. Folkard says, "in its name they
see but another form of the word 'holy,' and its thorny foliage and
blood-red berries are suggestive of the most Christian associations."
Then there is the rowan-tree or mountain-ash, which has long been
considered one of the most powerful antidotes against works of darkness
of every kind, probably from its sacred associations with the worship of
the Druids. Hence it is much valued in Scotland, and the following
couplet, of which there are several versions, still embodies the popular
"Rowan-tree and red thread,
Put the witches to their speed."
But its fame has not been confined to any one locality, and as far south
as Cornwall the peasant, when he suspects that his cow has been
"overlooked," twists an ashen twig round its horns. Indeed, so potent is
the ash as a counter charm to sorcery, that even the smallest twig
renders their actions impotent; and hence, in an old ballad entitled
"Laidley Wood," in the "Northumberland Garland," it is said:
"The spells were vain, the hag returned
To the queen in sorrowful mood,
Crying that witches have no power,
Where there is row'n-tree wood."
Hence persons carry an ashen twig in their pocket, and according to a
"If your whipsticks made of row'n,
You may ride your nag through any town;"
But, on the other hand, "Woe to the lad without a rowan-tree gall."
Possessed of such virtues, it is not surprising that the mystic ash
should have been held in the highest repute, in illustration of which we
find many an amusing anecdote. Thus, according to a Herefordshire
tradition, some years ago two hogsheads full of money were concealed in
an underground cellar belonging to the Castle of Penyard, where they
were kept by supernatural force. A farmer, however, made up his mind to
get them out, and employed for the purpose twenty steers to draw down
the iron door of the vault. On the door being slightly opened, a jackdaw
was seen sitting on one of the casks, but the door immediately closed
with a bang—a voice being heard to say,
"Had it not been
For your quicken tree goad,
And your yew tree pin,
You and your cattle
Had all been drawn in."
Another anecdote current in Yorkshire is interesting, showing how fully
superstitions of this kind are believed:—"A woman was lately in my
shop, and in pulling out her purse brought out also a piece of stick a
few inches long. I asked her why she carried that in her pocket. 'Oh,'
she replied, 'I must not lose that, or I shall be done for.' 'Why so?' I
inquired. 'Well,' she answered, 'I carry that to keep off the witches;
while I have that about me, they cannot hurt me.' On my adding that
there were no witches nowadays, she instantly replied, 'Oh, yes! there
are thirteen at this very time in the town, but so long as I have my
rowan-tree safe in my pocket they cannot hurt me.'"
Occasionally when the dairymaid churned for a long time without making
butter, she would stir the cream with a twig of mountain ash, and beat
the cow with another, thus breaking the witch's spell. But, to prevent
accidents of this kind, it has long been customary in the northern
countries to make the churn-staff of ash. For the same reason herd-boys
employ an ash-twig for driving cattle, and one may often see a
mountain-ash growing near a house. On the Continent the tree is in equal
repute, and in Norway and Denmark rowan branches are usually put over
stable doors to keep out witches, a similar notion prevailing in
Germany. No tree, perhaps, holds such a prominent place in
witchcraft-lore as the mountain-ash, its mystic power having rarely
failed to render fruitless the evil influence of these enemies
In our northern counties witches are said to dislike the bracken fern,
"because it bears on its root the initial C, which may be seen on
cutting the root horizontally." and in most places equally
distasteful to them is the yew, perhaps for no better reason than its
having formerly been much planted in churchyards. The herb-bennett
(Geum urbanum), like the clover, from its trefoiled leaf, renders
witches powerless, and the hazel has similar virtues. Among some of the
plants considered antagonistic to sorcery on the Continent may be
mentioned the water-lily, which is gathered in the Rhine district with a
certain formula. In Tuscany, the lavender counteracts the evil eye, and
a German antidote against the hurtful effects of any malicious influence
was an ointment made of the leaves of the marsh-mallow. In Italy, an
olive branch which has been blessed keeps the witch from the dwelling,
and in some parts of the Continent the plum-tree is used. Kolb, writes
Mr. Black, who became one of the first "wonder-doctors" of the
Tyrol, "when he was called to assist any bewitched person, made exactly
at midnight the smoke of five different sorts of herbs, and while they
were burning the bewitched was gently beaten with a martyr-thorn birch,
which had to be got the same night. This beating the patient with thorn
was thought to be really beating the hag who had caused the evil."
Some seasons, too, have been supposed to be closely associated with the
witches, as in Germany, where all flax must be spun before Twelfth
Night, for one who spins afterwards is liable to be bewitched.
Lastly, to counteract the spell of the evil eye, from which many
innocent persons were believed to suffer in the witchcraft period, many
flowers have been in requisition among the numerous charms used. Thus,
the Russian maidens still hang round the stem of the birch-tree red
ribbon, the Brahmans gather rice, and in Italy rue is in demand. The
Scotch peasantry pluck twigs of the ash, the Highland women the
groundsel, and the German folk wear the radish. In early times the
ringwort was recommended by Apuleius, and later on the fern was regarded
as a preservative against this baneful influence. The Chinese put faith
in the garlic; and, in short, every country has its own special plants.
It would seem, too, that after a witch was dead and buried,
precautionary measures were taken to frustrate her baneful influence.
Thus, in Russia, aspen is laid on a witch's grave, the dead sorceress
being then prevented from riding abroad.
1. See Moncure Conway's "Demonology and Devil Lore," 1880, ii. 324.
2. See Friend's "Flower Lore," ii. 529-30.
3. "Demonology and Devil Lore," ii. 324.
4. Grimm, "Teutonic Mythology," 1883, iii. 1051.
5. Folkard's "Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics," 1884, p. 91.
6. Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," iii. 19.
7. Grimm's "Teutonic Mythology," iii. 1052.
8. See Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," iii. 267.
9. See Folkard's "Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics," p. 209.
10. Ibid., p. 104.
11. See Kelly's "Indo-European Folk-lore," pp. 225-7.
12. See Hardwick's "Traditions, Superstitions, and Folk-lore," p. 117;
also Grimm's "Teutonic Mythology," 1883, iii. 1083.
13. See Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," 1852, iii. 21, 137.
14. "Popular Romances of the West of England," 1871, p. 330.
15. Grimm's "Teutonic Mythology," iii. 1084.
16. See Thorpe's "Northern Mythology," iii. 208-9.
17. See chap. "Doctrine of Signatures."
18. See Yardley's "Supernatural in Romantic Fiction," 1880, pp. 131-2.
19. See Fiske, "Myths and Mythmakers," p. 44; also Baring-Gould's
"Curious Myths of the Middle Ages," 1877, p. 398.
20. "Survey of London." See Mason's "Folk-lore of British Plants"
in Dublin University Magazine, September 1873, p. 326-8.
21. Mr. Conway's "Mystic Trees and Flowers," Fraser's Magazine,
22. "British Herbal."
23. See Folkard's "Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 380.
24. "Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 376.
25. Henderson's "Folk-lore of Northern Counties," 1879, p. 225.
26. "Folk-lore of Northern Counties," 1879.
27. "Folk-medicine," p. 202.