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Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer


charm of 9 herbs


  • The Dominion of Mercury

    trees and shrubs, with a lower growing very leafy plant in the foreground. In the middle ground a tall plant with yellow shaggy daisy-like flowers

    This tall plant, towering over everything else, is elecampane growing in a herb garden somewhere along the Clyde. I do have some in my garden and it is indeed as wild and rampageous as this, at least two metres tall, and flowering madly through the late summer. When I first got to know this garden I was convinced it wanted me to plant elecampane, and because I thought I had enough space for it, I was glad to do it. It’s bright and cheerful, it has an ancient traditional place in herbal medicine, and it grows wild around here, in neglected spaces. It thrives here, to the point where I’ve had to thin it out already.

    Culpeper claims that this plant is under the dominion of Mercury, which is reponsible for herbs governing the mind, nerves, respiration and communication. This has been a promising wormhole to explore. I had thought that the astrology of herbs was a useful classification system before Linnaeus, and to some extent this is the case – complaints and areas of the body are atrributed to the various planets, and relevant herbs are assigned to them. There are common characteristics, too – moon herbs are often sappy, gentle and water-loving, whereas sun herbs are upright, warming and mostly have golden flowers. Saturn owns a lot of cold soporific and poisonous herbs, and Mars has stimulating ones with harsh tastes, and prickles and thorns. Mars has a lot of wound herbs and Venus helps with gynaecological issues. I know herbalists who can assign a herb to its planet and function by the taste or look of it and some categorisation must have helped.

    The interesting thing I found when I compiled my list, was how many of the plants which do unexpectedly well in this garden are under Mercury – lavender, santolina, southernwood, lily of the valley. The soil here is less acid than in my previous garden, and the climate is gentler, so I expected some difference, but I never looked at planets. Moon herbs and the herbs of Venus are doing well, and the sun herbs are not too bad, but herbs belonging to Saturn and Jupiter are struggling. I am not convinced that actual planetary influences are at work here, but when our ancestors drew up these categories, they weren’t working simply with superstition and magic. There are characteristics in common that I just don’t know enough to spot. I am looking forward to finding out more about soil, aspect, drainage and plant associations as the growing season goes on, and particularly what it was about the garden that convinced me elecampane was the right plant.

    a clump of miniature daffodils

    We have just reached this point in the garden, where the daffodils are out, the tulips are thinking about it, and the primroses and violets are blooming and colonising new space. The first trees are at bud burst and there’s an exciting green haze on the hedges. Most of the perennials are now showing new growth, and the greenhouse is full of hopeful seed trays. I’ve heard the first bees on sunny afternoons. There is an enormous magpie’s nest in one of the trees behind the house, and whole squadrons of them terrorise the other birds, lining up like storm troopers in an ambush on the roof-tops and shouting at everything that comes too close. There is a robin’s nest in the hawthorns growing over the burn, and the trees lining the footpath are full of sparrows and bluetits, blackbirds, wren and chaffinches. The ground is very wet and all the burns are running high, but the soil is not so saturated that anything has come to harm.

    I have made a new propagation area beside the greenhouse where the noonday sun will hit it, and I reckon I will have a lot of plants to share. (If you’re in Glasgow and would like some, please ask!) I took cuttings and saved seedlings as insurance against the cold and damp of winter, but I lost very few plants apart from purple sage, and when this year’s seeds come through I won’t know where to put everything. I’m going to have a nine herbs bed beside the apple tree (the nettle is going to be hidden behind the shed) and a scented garden below the damson. Culinary herbs will be closer to the house, and flowers for cutting and drying and pollinators will be in the front, where they will make a change from the conventional grass and bedding. Someone asked me if my garden was full of weeds, and frankly, yes it is – but also bees and butterflies. Mercury is a very unconventional planet – I’m not surprised this garden is too.

    a herb plot with fennel in full flower centre, southernwood to the left, a rose bush to the right


  • The Charm of Nine Herbs – 5 Burdock

    A burdock plant photographed in June on the island of Seil.

    Put to evil to flight, now burdock,* let the great be diminished

     the lesser be increased * until both are healed.

    This, I admit, is a weird one, a flight of fancy, perhaps, but not without some thought and information behind it. I had even speculated that these two lines may simply belong to the lines about nettle, and ‘attorlaþe‘ (literally plague-defier’) might simply be a nickname. However, further research indicates otherwise.

    Attorlaþe is usually translated as either cockspur grass,  or betony, but I haven’t found either option particularly convincing. Cockspur grass has very little use in medicine – the only recorded use is to shorten labour, as the grains often act as host for the fungus ergot. Otherwise it is regarded as poison to cattle and sheep, and an invasive pest. Betony has a long tradition of use as a wound herb, a nerve tonic, to relieve anxiety and calm the digestion, and this looked quite plausible until I found another text which referred to a remedy for coughs – a mixture of betony and ‘lesser attorlaþe’ – which tells me that there must also be a greater variety.

    Then there is that rather magical incantatory ‘let the great be diminished, the lesser be increased’. I was baffled by this until I came across the term ‘alterative’ which is used for herbs which are used to restore and rebalance the system, particularly the digestion, liver and kidneys. I looked up native herbs which are used as alteratives, and dandelion and burdock topped the list – and there is both a greater and a lesser burdock used in traditional medicine. I’m not altogether satisfied with this identification; it is no more than a best guess. But it is a guess that does not make the assumption that the charm is no more than a superstitious curiosity, but is a genuine element of the history of herbal medicine.

     

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  • The Charm of Nine Herbs – (1) Mugwort

    I was hoping the Old English Lacnunga would translate into a good poem for Haggards, but it really doesn’t. I might write my own Charm of Nine Herbs at some point, but while I was working at the original, I have done some research that might be interesting. The link I’ve given is to a parallel text, original and (sort of) translation. It’s not great, but some of the tricky words exist only in this text, and translators seem to choose meanings that fit their own theories. Very few of them seem to have much background knowledge of either herblore or Old English – the Penn State Garden site is an exception here, but does suffer from Dark Age syndrome – where the past is full of magic and ignorance and can safely be assumed to be wrong.

    mugwort

    Anyway, I’m going to offer an attempt at translation, and a bit of background research, on the assumption that the Dark Ages might have lacked technical language and scientific theory, but they were good at observation and response.

    Mugwort, remember  *  what you proclaimed,

    what you laid down * in the Lord’s Decree.

    First, you are called, * oldest of herbs.

    You have the power * over three, over thirty.

    You have power over venom, * over airborne infection.

    You have power over the evil one * who wanders the world.

    Mugwort was used to flavour beer, as a substitute for tea, or even tobacco in Orkney, (source Flora Celtica, published by Birlinn Books and edited by William Milliken and Sam Bridgewater). Dried leaves were used to deter fleas and to repel moths. Stems were used to make baskets.  It was sometimes known as St John’s girdle, because it was believed St John the Baptist wore it, and was believed to have power to preserve from fatigue, sunstroke, wild beasts and evil spirits. Medicinally it was used for diseases of the stomach and liver, as an antidote to poison, for fevers and nervous conditions (source A Modern Herbal M.Grieve). Credited with magical powers, it was planted to protect a house from elves (Geoffrey Grigson Englishman’s Flora) and was carved on roof bosses in churches, particularly Exeter cathedral.

    The Lord’s Decree was popularly held, in early Christian times, to be what Christ taught his disciples between the Resurrection and the Ascension. Of course, where communities were mixed, pagans might have attributed this wisdom to someone else entirely, but healers don’t seem to have worried overmuch. There are references to the Bible and to Woden side by side in this text.

    I’ve been a bit baffled by the word ‘attre’, which I have translated as ‘venom’. It means ‘poison’ or ‘plague’, but what I think is meant is ‘contamination’ – poison, literally, but also septicaemia, toxins, pollution or bacterial infection. It is often paired with ‘onflyge’, which means literally ‘flying in’ and must be related to the word ‘influenza’ – disease that comes in the air, or because of the weather. Or as we might say, when there’s something going round.

    The evil one, wandering the world, is a reference to Satan in the Book of Job (1:7). It came in handy for Grendel, too.

     



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