Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Myths of the Raven The myths and meanings of the Tower of London ravens By Jeffrey Vallance


“If the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it.” 

In the summer of 2004, I was in London to give a lecture in connection with the exhibition “This much is certain” at the Royal College of Art. Previously, I had researched raven lore, heard the Tower of London raven legend, and wanted to see the Tower ravens first-hand. I came upon the portentous birds just before noon, after seeing an informative display of fake torture instruments in the Bloody Tower. The ravens were to my right, just west of the White Tower. They were gathered by their cages, situated at ground level atop a grassy mound near the ruin of the Wall of the Innermost Ward. A sign was posted: “Warning: Ravens Bite.” An ominous black raven turned my way, croaked, and then casually picked up a stick in her beak.

The Innermost Ward was an enclosed area once reserved for royalty and nobles of the court. The Ward’s crumbling 13th-century rampart wall is pierced by gaping holes that once served as embrasures (narrow slits for arrows). Purportedly, a ghostly figure has been observed glaring through the apertures in the wall – vanishing only to reappear at each hole all along the deteriorating ruin. It is behind this haunted wall that the ghastly ravens make their doleful nests.

The ravens’ favourite haunt is the Tower Green, the former site of royal beheadings. In 1536, Anne Boleyn was beheaded here. After her head was severed, the executioner held it up, and for a moment the eyes and lips continued to move. It is claimed that her bluish, headless ghost still wanders the vicinity. A gruesome shadow of a huge executioner’s axe has also been seen gliding across the Green. Traditionally, ravens are thought to be prophetic birds and are associated with execution sites and graveyards. The raven coop is placed quite close to the Bloody Tower. In 1483, the Little Princes (12-year-old King Edward V and his nine-year-old brother Richard, Duke of York) were brought to the Bloody Tower, and subsequently disappeared from history; many assume they were brutally murdered. In 1647, workmen tearing up a staircase found the bones of two children purported to be the Princes. It is said that on bleak and dreary nights, the ghostly figures of the Little Princes, dressed in white nightclothes, stand silently hand in hand before slowly fading away. At times their soft weeping can be heard after dark near the raven roost.

Sir Walter Raleigh was also imprisoned in the Bloody Tower for 13 years before he finally got the axe. His phantom has been seen floating noiselessly through the various rooms. The Beefeaters from time to time even report smelling the phantom aroma of roast beef in the White Tower after nightfall. When the Tower ghosts make their appearances, the ravens become unusually agitated and will not settle down. The 1962 MGM horror film classic The Tower of London, based on Shakespeare’s Richard III, stars Vincent Price as the demented despot haunted by grim ravens and the forlorn ghosts of his victims.

According to tradition, the curious raven prophecy can be traced back to the “Merry Monarch”, Charles II (1660-1685). On 22 June 1675, the King established the Royal Observatory at the Tower of London, housed in the north-eastern turret of the White Tower. The Royal Astronomer, John Flamsteed (1646-1719), allegedly complained to the King that the birds were interfering with his celestial observations. Charles therefore ordered their demise – only to be forewarned by an obscure soothsayer that: “if the ravens left the Tower, the White Tower would collapse and a great disaster befall the Kingdom”. There are various similar versions of the legend, but all maintain that a horrible catastrophe would be visited upon the country if all the ravens quit the Tower. After hearing the warning, the King decreed that at least six ravens be kept at the Tower at all times to prevent such a calamity. Now the birds’ wings are routinely clipped so they cannot escape.

For an example of ravens forcibly expelled from a castle tower, bringing forth a dismal curse, just look at the ill-fated Hapsburg dynasty. The Hapsburgs were rulers of the Holy Roman Empire (962-1806), and they had in their possession the miraculous Holy Lance. Long ago, the castle tower of their ancestral Schlöss Hapsburg had many ravens flying about and merrily making nests everywhere, until one day the Hapsburgs cruelly exterminated every last one of them.

This was the origin of the Hapsburg Curse. From then on, the Hapsburgs were haunted by supernatural ravens called Turnfalken, whose every appearance presaged doom to members of the imperial family. Numerous times in history the foreboding Turnfalken have been seen in Vienna soaring above the Schönbrunn and Hofburg palaces. It has been claimed that in Paris the ravens were seen hovering and screeching over Marie Antoinette as she was guillotined, in Mexico when Emperor Maximilian was shot by the firing squad, at Mayerling when Prince Rudolf and his lover Countess Maria Vetsera consummated their suicide pact (although some say they were murdered), and at Sarajevo when Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated – triggering World War I and the crumbling Hapsburg empire’s final demise.

Possibly related to the London Tower legend are other raven folktales, superstitions, and legends. According to Cornish folklore, the spirit of King Arthur is said to dwell in ravens, and for this reason it is considered unlucky and even sacrilegious to kill one. An age-old superstition states if all the ravens in a wood suddenly forsake it, surely disaster will follow. Another Tower raven legend chronicled in the Mabinogion states that upon the death of the giant king Bran the Blessed (bran means raven in Welsh), his head was cut off and buried at the “White Hill” in London, (usually identified as Tower Hill) “with the face turned towards France”. This burial is known in the Welsh Triads as one of the Three Happy Concealments of The Island of the Mighty. As long as Bran’s head stays buried there, Britain will be safe from invasion. It is as if these older legends, folktales, and superstitions fused to form the current Tower of London raven legend.

It is claimed that the ravens have been at the Tower of London since the 13th century, and for the last 400 years they have been protected by royal decree. However, Geoff Parnell, the official Tower of London historian, recently scoured records dating back a millennium and found no reference to the ravens before an 1895 article in an RSPCA journal, The Animal World. One Edith Hawthorn referred to the Tower’s pet cat being tormented by the ravens, Jenny and a nameless mate. A menagerie was kept at the Tower by generations of monarchs for at least 600 years until it became the foundation of London Zoo. There were hawks, lions, leopards, monkeys and even a polar bear – but no mention of ravens. Besides, the Duke of Wellington, who dismantled the menagerie in 1835, wanted to get dangerous animals out of the way of his garrison and would hardly have tolerated six sharp-beaked ravens hanging around. Dr Parnell’s research suggests that some ravens may have been a punning gift to the Tower by the third Earl of Dunraven (1812-71), an archæologist and antiquarian fascinated by Celtic raven myths, who added ravens to his family coat of arms. Some now believe the raven legend is a Victorian invention, but we can’t be certain. Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.

Ravens are now a protected species in Britain. The Tower birds are cared for by one of the Yeoman Warders (known as Beefeaters) with the regal title of Ravenmaster. The current Ravenmaster, Derrick Coyle, a former Sergeant Major, has been at the Tower for 20 years, first serving as Deputy Ravenmaster before becoming full-time Ravenmaster six years ago. Coyle’s arms are full of nasty scars, evidence of the ravens’ powerful bills and razor-sharp talons – he stoically calls them “love taps.” The birds are fed kitchen scraps, an occasional rabbit, and the odd roadkill that the Ravenmaster happens to pick up. The ravens Odin and Thor, brothers, used to mimic the Ravenmaster’s voice, including the vocalisations, “Come on then!” and “Good morning.” Sadly, however, these two birds passed away in 2003.

It has been observed (not infrequently) that when a member of the flock perishes, the birds will hold what could be called a “raven funeral” – a 24-hour event marked by raucous outcries. The Ravenmaster buries the dead bird in the Raven Cemetery located in the drained moat close to the Watergate and the St Thomas Tower. (St Thomas is the patron saint of clergy.) There is a special Raven Memorial Headstone that lists all ravens buried there from 1956 onwards. (Incidentally, in England, tombstones are sometimes referred to as “ravenstones”.) The St Thomas Tower is also known as Traitors’ Gate because it was through this Tower that condemned prisoners accused of treason arrived from Westminster. The Tower is named in honour of Sir Thomas Becket, whose apparition has been seen striking the walls of the building with a crucifix, loudly proclaiming it was not made for the common good but “for the injury and prejudice of the Londoners, my brethren”.

As I wrote this in Southern California, a raven-black crow fell from the sky and landed dead on my driveway. I buried it in the backyard (under a spare headstone originally carved for Blinky the Friendly Hen - see FT53:23). I worried about my freshly deceased feathered friend, especially since a dead crow can indicate that the West Nile Virus is in the region. Up in Southeast Alaska, a mysterious life-threatening beak deformity is now affecting crows and ravens. The deformity can cause beaks to grow up to three times their normal size and prevent regular feeding, and in many birds it leads to death. The cause of the phenomenon is unknown.

Today the Tower strictly maintains the decree-required six ravens. Their names are, appropriately, Hugine, Munin, Bran, Branwen, Gwyllum, and Cedric. (The Norse god Odin had two raven familiars named Huginn and Muninn who perched on his shoulders and told him everything they saw and heard. I wonder if the current monarchy has the same arrangement.) Each Tower raven can be identified by a different coloured leg band. Ravens can live a long time – the oldest was Jim Crow, who died at the age 44 (and by the way, there is a bourbon whiskey called ‘Old Crow’).

To anyone from the States, the name Jim Crow sounds inappropriate as a name for a raven, as it is a derogatory term for a Black person. The era of the Jim Crow laws (the “black codes,” 1877 to the mid-1960s) is one of the most appalling and shameful periods in American history – a time of racial discrimination, segregation, and lynch mobs. The term “Jim Crow” is derived from a character in an antebellum minstrel show contrived by Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice, a white actor who was one of the first to wear blackface to do stereotypical imitations of Negro performers (paving the way for such entertainers as Al Jolson). Daddy Rice did his Jim Crow song-and-dance routine to astounding acclaim from audiences in New York and London.

During World War II, the grim raven prophecy almost came to pass, as only one raven (named Grip) was left at the Tower. The other birds were killed by bombing or pined and died of shock during the Blitz. In fact, the ravens’ cages are built on the ruined foundation of the Main Guard tower (or Queen Victoria’s Canteen), destroyed on 29 December 1940 by a Nazi incendiary bomb. In 1944, the gutted Main Guard building was demolished, revealing the mediæval Wall of the Innermost Ward. When the Tower reopened to the public on 1 January 1946, there were six ravens once again.

In 1981, a raven named Grog managed to escape from the Tower after 21 years’ service and was last spotted scavenging outside the Rose and Punchbowl pub in London’s East End. The birds are treated not as pets but as military personnel. They are “enlisted” and can be “dismissed” like soldiers for unbecoming behaviour. In 1986, a raven called George, “enlisted in 1975”, was dismissed for “conduct unsatisfactory” and sent to the Welsh Mountain Zoo. He “received his marching orders” after demolishing television aerials.

A trickster raven named Rhys, a skilful mimic, used to get behind groups of people and start barking like a dog. People would look around for the dog, while Rhys would run off, cackling to himself. Then there is the sad story of the “Two Charlies”. While preparing for a royal visit by Queen Elizabeth, a bomb-sniffing dog named Charlie was sent in. A raven also named Charlie pecked Charlie the dog, who then took the bird in his mouth and bit down hard, killing him.

According to documentation released under the Freedom of Information Act in February 2005, the Tower ravens are under threat from an invasion of 200 crows a day and these common cousins are being shot to protect the ravens from diseases and competition for food. The cull takes place before tourists arrive. The RSPB said it was legal to shoot urban crows to protect the ravens, but the law was being reviewed. However, wild ravens could soon be nesting at the Tower again after being found breeding near the capital for the first time in 180 years. Nests have been recorded in Bedfordshire, Sussex, Berkshire and Hampshire. Although once common in London, where they scavenged on refuse and the bodies hanging in gibbets at the Tower, ravens last nested in the wild in Hyde Park in 1826.

My raven research was enhanced by a pamphlet given to me by FT founding co-editor Paul Sieveking, entitled Coracomancy: Raven Crow(s) Behaviour (translated from Tibetan). According to the pamphlet, “There are expressions in the language and behaviour of ravens and crows which accurately convey messages and portents. These can be interpreted, if observed and understood correctly.” By use of coracomancy, I attempted to divine the calls and conduct of the Tower ravens I encountered. A raven crowing at mid-morning until mid-day from the west means “a long distance will be travelled”. (That was certain – I faced an exhausting 10-hour flight back to Los Angeles.) While travelling near a river (the Tower is, of course, next to the Thames), a raven crowing from the right side predicts “the journey will be successful”. (My trip did go rather well.)

A raven sitting on a castle at any time means “good lodgings will be found”. (The St Margaret hotel near the British Museum proved to be quite good. St Margaret is the patron saint of queens.) A raven holding a stick or piece of wood foretells “something will be found”. (I found a flake of the Tower that had crumbled off, and I saved it as a relic.) Concerning signs by location of nests, when a raven makes its nest in a wall, on the ground, or by water, it predicts “the King (or Queen) will prosper”. (I wondered if the Ravenmaster had read the Coracomancy pamphlet and placed the ravens’ nests on the ground near a wall – precisely in the perfect position for English Royalty to prosper.) It was the raven named Munin who gave me that piercing sideways stare with her beady jet-black eyes as she crowed “ka-ka” in a high-pitched voice, which translates as “wealth will be obtained”. (Once again the raven’s prediction was flawless, as I was subsequently notified that I would receive a major research grant.) I was amazed that the raven prognostications were all right on the money.

Original article posted HERE

Monday, May 21, 2012

Herbal Superstitions A to Z

“Superstition is one of the mainsprings of human behaviour,
generating hopes of defeating the forces of evil, and of influencing
one’s own fate.” —Iona Opie and Moira Tatem, A Dictionary
of Superstitions.
It was once believed that an acorn placed on a windowsill
guarded a house against fires and damage caused by lightning
strikes. This superstition can be traced back to the old Norse
legend that the great god Thor once sheltered from a thunderstorm
under a mighty oak tree.   

Adder’s Tongue
The British once believed that adder’s tongue gathered
during the waning of the moon possessed the power to cure
adder bites and, according to David Pickering’s Dictionary of
Superstitions, countered “other evils associated with snakes.”

According to a rhyme found in a medieval medical manuscript,
“If it [agrimony] be leyd under a man’s head, he shall sleep as if he were dead. He shall never drede nor waken, till
from under his head it be taken.”

According to the ancient Roman author Pliny, the eating
of five nuts from an almond tree before drinking wine will
work to prevent drunkenness!
If success in your business ventures is what you desire, one
way to attain this (in addition to hard work) is to climb to the
top of an almond tree, so sayeth an old legend from Asia.

Associated with Saint Michael the Archangel, angelica was
once thought to dispel lustful thoughts and protect against
sorcery, the Black Death, attacks by rabid and venomous beasts,
and a wide variety of illnesses.

Apple Tree
If the sun shines on Christmas morning and rain falls on
Saint Swithin’s Day (July 15th), these are both a good omen
that the apple orchards will yield a bountiful crop the following
season. To ensure that an apple tree bears fruit for many
years, an old custom from Germany is for the first fruit of the
season to be consumed by a woman who has bore many children.
There exist a number of death omens related to apple trees.
For instance, if there should be a single apple left on a tree
after the rest of the crop has been picked at harvesting time
and it does not fall to the ground before the arrival of the
following spring, the family upon whose land the apple tree
stands will lose one of its loved ones to the Angel of Death.
Interestingly, it is an old Pagan custom in some parts of the world to deliberately leave one apple on the tree at harvesting
time as an offering to the spirits. Beware of apple trees that
blossom out of season (particularly in the fall), for they are
said to presage a death in the family.
Unicorns, according to Pagan folklore, often dwell beneath
apple (and ash) trees. Every so often, one or more of these
magnificent magickal creatures can be observed eating or wandering
about in an apple orchard, especially in the wee morning
hours when the countryside is shrouded in a ghostly mist.
Other apple superstitions are as follows: Eating an apple a
day is said to “keep the doctor away.” Wassailing apple trees
on Twelfth Night keeps all manners of evil spirits at bay. Cutting
down an apple orchard is said by some to bring bad luck,
and many Pagan folks in Norway once believed that by eating
apples they could attain “immortality through wisdom.” According
to an issue of Notes and Queries from the year 1862, “a
good apple year is a great year for twins.”
Rubbing an apple before eating it is an old method to
ensure that the fruit will be free of any evil spirits or demonic
entities. Some superstitious folks still believe that if you eat an
apple without first rubbing or washing it, you invite the devil
to dine with you.

In England, it was once believed that bad luck would befall
anyone who dared to pick the fruit of the blackberry plant
after the 11th day of October (the old
date of the Christian’s Feast of Michaelmas).
Legend has it that on this day many
eons ago the devil fell into a thorny blackberry
thicket and laid a curse upon the

The broom has long been regarded as a plant of ill omen,
and unluckiest during the month of May. To sweep the house
with blossomed broom in May (or even to bring it into the
house) is said to “sweep the head of the house away.” In England,
it was once believed that the whipping of a young boy
with a branch of green broom would result in the stunting of
his growth.

If the very first daffodil you lay your eyes upon in the
spring or summer hangs its head towards you, this is said to
be an omen of bad luck for the remainder of the year. This
herbal superstition, which is centuries old, continues to live
on in many parts of Great Britain.

The legendary power of garlic to keep bloodthirsty vampires
and all evil spirits at bay is known throughout much of
the world. However, some say that only garlic gathered in the
month of May can be truly effective for this purpose.
According to an old legend popular among Christians,
the first garlic sprang up in the spot where the Devil’s left foot
stepped when he left the Garden of Eden. In the spot where
his right foot stepped, sprang the first onion.
Garlic is said to be able to absorb the diseases of both man
and beast, as well as to trap and destroy negative vibrations and
evil influences within cursed or haunted dwellings. (Interestingly,
onions are accredited with having the same powers.)

Also known as hagthorn (due to its long association with
Witches), the hawthorn is a very magickal tree that is said to
be sacred to the Pagan deities Cardea, Flora, and Hymen. In
England it was once believed that the hawthorn was one of the
three trees most sacred to the fairy-folk (the others being the
oak and the ash).
It is customary for many modern Witches to decorate their
Beltane altars and May poles with hawthorn. In ancient times,
many a superstitious soul believed that hawthorns were actually
Witches in disguise. Many Witches were thought to have
been able to transform themselves into trees at will by means
of magickal spells, or (according to Christians) through the
aid of the devil. Others were said to have danced so wildly
around the hawthorns in their frenzied rites that they permanently
became as one with the tree.
Take care not to sit beneath the boughs of a hawthorn tree
on Halloween (the time of year when the invisible veil between
the human and supernatural realms is thinnest), otherwise,
you may fall under a fairy enchantment. Cutting down a
hawthorn tree is said to greatly anger the fairies, and therefore
brings the worst of luck to the one who fells it.
There exist contradicting legends concerning the bringing
of hawthorn blossoms into the house. One holds that the
blossoms are beneficial, offering the household protection
against evil, sorcery, and lightning. Another claims that they
are extremely unlucky and may even bring about a death in
the family.

Since medieval times, it has been believed that bad luck
awaits those who pick the black hellebore. White hellebore flowers, on the other hand, were once believed to cure madness,
promote intelligence, and protect against epileptic seizures,
leprosy, miscarriages, and attacks by rabid animals.
Long ago, many farmers blessed their cattle with hellebore
to protect them against sorcery, and it was for this purpose that
the plant was dug up with certain mystical rites. In The Complete
Book of Herbs by Kay N. Sanecki, it is said that “a circle was
described with the point of a sword around the plant, and then
prayers were offered while the black roots were lifted.”
Some farmers still believe that a good harvest is portended
whenever a hellebore plant bears four tufts. However, it is believed
to be an extremely bad sign should it bear only two.
This portends a crop failure in the near future.

Known by many names, including “bat’s
wings” and “Christ’s thorn,” the holly is a plant
strongly connected to the Yuletide season and
highly valued by Witches for its magickal and
divinatory powers. It was once believed to safeguard
a house and its inhabitants against lightning
strikes, evil entities, hauntings, and black magick when
planted near the dwelling.
Carrying a wand or walking stick made of holly wood will
prevent you from falling victim to all hexes and bewitchments,
according to occult folklore.
To avoid bad luck, be sure never to bring holly into your
house prior to Christmas Eve. However, not having holly in
your house at all on Christmas Day is said to conjure the worst
of luck for all members of the family.
It is supposed to be very unlucky to step on a holly berry,
cut down a holly tree, sweep a chimney with holly, or burn discarded holly boughs, which some folks believe invites the
Angel of Death to claim a member of the family.
The so-called “male” variety of holly (with prickly leaves)
brings good luck to all persons of the male gender; while the
“female” variety (with smooth leaves) brings good luck to all of
the fairer sex.
An old Christian legend holds that the cross on which
Jesus Christ was crucified was made of holly wood, and it was
the blood of Christ that gave the holly berry its deep red color.
It is said that lightning will never strike a holly tree nor
anyone who stands under the branches of one during a storm.
It was a widespread belief in the Middle Ages that the
holly possessed miraculous curative powers. Pricking or thrashing
the feet with holly and then walking barefoot in the snow
was once thought to cure chilblains (an inflammatory swelling
caused by cold and poor circulation). Another old method
for treating chilblains was to rub the ashes of burnt holly berries
upon the afflicted areas. To prevent a fever, scratch your
legs with a holly branch; and to ease a whooping cough, drink
a bit of fresh milk out of a cup or bowl made of holly wood.

In many parts of Great Britain it is still believed that houseleeks
growing on the outside walls and/or roof of a house bring
phenomenal good luck to all inhabitants of the dwelling. However,
should you purposely or accidentally cut down a houseleek,
you will suffer a streak of bad luck, especially where your
house is concerned.
Houseleeks are also said to protect a house against lightning
strikes, fire, and tempests. For this reason, it is traditional
for many folks upon moving into a new home to plant
them as close to the house as possible before doing anything else. It is also very common for many Welsh families who dwell
within thatch-roofed cottages to plant houseleeks upon their
rooftops for good luck.

According to old English folklore, the hydrangea is an
unlucky plant for young ladies who wish to find a husband.
Persons who allow the plant to grow near their houses (especially
close to the front door) are said to curse their daughters
with a lonely life of spinsterhood.

Some people believe that bringing an ivy plant into the
house also brings in bad luck. Picking a leaf from an ivy plant
growing on the wall of a church will cause you to fall ill. Even
worse, should the ivy growing on the wall of a house suddenly
wither and die for no apparent reason, this is said to indicate that
a death will occur in that household within a very short time.

If the wind should blow leaves of any type into your house,
this is said to be a very lucky omen. Catching a falling autumn
leaf before it reaches the ground also brings good luck, and
some people claim that for every leaf you catch you will have a
day filled with good luck. Another superstition holds that if
you secretly make a wish as you catch a falling leaf on Halloween,
it will surely come true for you. And yet another leaf-catching
superstition promises 12 consecutive months
of good luck and happiness for those who catch
12 falling leaves in the month of October.

It was once believed that mandrake plants were inhabited
by dark-skinned supernatural beings known as mandragoras
(“man-dragons”), which were mischievous by nature and often
called upon to aid sorcerers and sorceresses in the practice
of their craft.
A legend dating back to medieval times claims that when
a mandrake plant is pulled from the ground, it emits an earpiercing
scream and begins to sweat droplets of blood. Legend
also has it that any person whose ears were unfortunate enough
to hear the plant’s shriek would either be driven to madness or
suffer an agonizing death. How this legend came to be is somewhat
of a mystery, but it was nevertheless well known throughout
Europe and even prompted many practitioners of sorcery
to use dogs to uproot their mandrakes as a safety precaution.
One interesting theory concerning the origin of the shrieking
mandrake legend can be found in Richard Lucas’ The Magic
of Herbs in Daily Living:
“Tests conducted by Sir Janghadish showed that a plant
pulled up by the roots suffers tremendous shock, comparable
to that of a person beaten into insensibility. This immediately
calls to mind the legend of the screaming mandrake. Perhaps
the myth originated when some person here and there with
mediumistic ability tore a mandrake from the ground and psychically
sensed the plant’s torment and anguish. Such an experience
would have excited profound emotions of horror in
the mind of the psychic, especially if the person was a timid
soul or one whose psychic faculties had just emerged for the
first time. It is not difficult to understand that in some instances
the shock could have caused insanity or heart failure.”

In order to be effective in magickal spells, mistletoe must
be cut with a single stroke of a gold sickle on the Summer
Solstice, the Winter Solstice, or the sixth day after the new
moon. Take care not to let the plant touch the earth, lest it be
rendered magickally impotent.
This old Pagan custom originated with the priestly caste
of the Celts, who believed that mistletoe found growing on
oak trees possessed the power to heal as well as to promote
fertility and protect against all manner of evil.
The Druids believed that it was necessary to appease the
gods by sacrificing a pair of white bulls during their mistletoecutting
Also known in earlier times as all heal, devil’s fuge, golden
bough, and Witches’ broom, the mistletoe is said to be sacred
to the Pagan deities Apollo, Freya, Frigga, Odin, and Venus.
According to old Pagan herb lore, mistletoe works well to
ward off lightning strikes and storms when hung from the
chimney or over the doors and windows of a dwelling.
Fairies are also said to be repelled by the sight and smell of
mistletoe, a belief that unquestionably gave birth to the old
custom of placing a sprig of the plant inside a child’s cradle.
With the protective power of the mistletoe working for them,
parents who once feared that their children might be stolen by
fairies and replaced with changelings could rest easier at night.
In England it was once believed that if a young woman
failed to be kissed beneath a sprig of yuletide mistletoe before
her wedding day, she would be forever unable to bear children.
Likewise, unable to father children would be the fate of
any man who never kissed beneath the yuletide mistletoe while
in his bachelorhood.
Many people continue to cling to the old belief that cutting
down any mistletoe-bearing tree is a most unlucky thing
to do. Some individuals who have done so are said to have met
with a violent death as a result. But whether such strange and
deadly occurrences are actually the effects of an ancient Druid
curse at work or merely odd coincidences, we may never know
for sure.

“Too superstitious…is their conceit…that it [mistletoe] hath
power against witchcraft, and the illusion of Sathan [Satan], and
for that purpose, use to hang a piece thereof at their children’s neckes.”
—J. Parkinson, Theatrum Botanicum, 1640.

Molukka Bean
The Molukka bean (or nut) is a variety of nut native to the
Molukka Islands, and popular as an amulet in the Western
Isles of Scotland (where they often wash ashore). When worn
about the neck, a white Molukka bean is said to turn black to
indicate the presence of a sorcerer or a person possessing the
evil eye. Some people believe that Molukka beans guard against
death in childbirth and drowning.

In the Middle Ages, it was popularly believed among the
peasantry of Europe that the fern known as moonwort possessed
the power to open or break locks, loosen iron nails, and
unshoe horses that tread upon it. An even more curious superstition
surrounding the moonwort holds that woodpeckers can
acquire the strength to pierce iron if they rub their beaks upon
a leaf of this plant. How this bizarre belief entered into the
annals of herblore is a mystery.

Sacred to the Pagan goddesses Artemis and Diana, the
mugwort is a significant magickal herb and one with many
connections to occult folklore.
According to an ancient tradition, a mugwort plant must
be picked on the eve of a Summer Solstice in order for its
magickal properties to be properly activated. Christians in the
Middle Ages seldom pulled a mugwort from the soil of the
earth without first making the sign of the cross to ward off any
evil spirits that might have taken up residence within the plant.
A small “coal” (said to be actually “old acid roots”) found
in the ground beneath the roots of a mugwort plant is reputed
to be one of the most powerful of all natural amulets. However,
occult tradition holds that unless the mugwort plant is
uprooted at noon or midnight on St. John’s Eve, the “coal”
found beneath it shall be without amuletic value.
For those lucky enough to unearth such a treasure, a
mugwort’s “coal” will offer protection against all “venomous
beasts,” ward off evil and sorcery, heal all ills (including madness
and the plague), inspire feelings of lust in the frigid, bring
fertility to those cursed with barrenness, and induce prophetic
dreams (especially pertaining to future marriage partners) when
placed under a pillow at bedtime.

“If they would drink nettles in March,
And eat muggons [mugwort] in May,
So many fine maidens
Would go not to the clay.”
—An old Scottish rhyme.

It is a good luck sign to find a peapod containing nine
peas, and an even luckier one to come across one containing a
single pea. If you make a wish while throwing a pod of nine
peas over your right shoulder, the chances are
good that your wish will come true (but only if
you do not repeat it to anyone). It was once
believed that a wart could be cured by rubbing
it with a pod of nine peas while reciting a
special incantation.

It was once believed that to accidentally leave any earth
unsown in a field brought upon a death in the family before
the end of the year, or, depending on the local legend, before
the crop is reaped. An old Scottish farming superstition holds
that if the weather prevents the sowing of seed after a farmer
has taken it out to the field, this is a grim omen.

Centuries ago, it was common in rural England for a live
shrew-mouse to be imprisoned within the split trunk of an
ash tree and left there to suffocate or starve to death, thus
giving the tree incredible magickal powers. Such a tree was
known as a “shrew-ash” and its branches and leaves were believed
to possess the miraculous powers to heal both man and
beast of a wide variety of ailments, including shrew bites.

In some parts of England it is still believed that willow
wood should never be burned on Bonfire Night. To do so invites bad luck. Driving a horse with a stick of willow brings on a
stomach ache, while swatting a child or animal with one stunts
their growth.
Willow trees have long been valued for their natural ability
to protect against sorcery and the evil eye, and some individuals
believe that touching them ensures good luck. However,
never reveal a secret beneath a willow, otherwise your secrets
will be repeated by the wind.

Wood Betony
According to Penelope Ody in The Complete Medicinal
Herbal, wood betony was the most important herb among the
Anglo-Saxons, who found at least 29 medicinal uses for it. She
also suggests that wood betony was “possibly the most popular
amulet herb, used well into the Middle Ages to ward off
evil or ill humors.” A ninth century Saxon work called Herbarium
Apuleii says that wood betony “is good whether for a
man’s soul or his body; it shields him against visions and
dreams.” Other popular herbs in Saxon times were mugwort,
plantain, vervain, and yarrow, which were used in numerous
internal remedies, but most commonly employed as an amulet.

From: Herbal Magick A Witch’s Guide to Herbal Folklore and Enchantments