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How The Healing Herb Became

"Long ago, in Erin, there were the Fomorians, and after them, the Tuatha De Danaan. The Tuatha fought to win the land from the Fomorians and they were helped by their god of medicine and physic, Diancecht.

At the last great battle, Diancecht took one each of every good herb in Erin, and threw them into a well. Then he took all those mortally wounded of the Tuatha De Danaan and threw them into the well. They each climbed from the well, whole again and fit to rejoin the battle; and in this manner, which I shall forbear to call cheating, the Tuatha De Danaan defeated the Fomorians.

Diancecht had a son called Midac; when Midac died, 365 different herbs grew on his grave, one for each joint and sinew of his body. Each herb was good cure for the matching part of the human body that it's position indicated on the grave of Midac.

Diancecht's daughter collected and dried the herbs and placed them in store in their proper order; however, Diancecht must have thought the Tuatha were getting it too easy, for in a fit of a temper he mixed all the herbs up; that is why mankind has to sort things out for himself."

(Adapted from the Old Irish folk legend told in 'Magic and Medicine in Anglo-Saxon England', Wilfrid Bonser.)
Sister Aelfwynn July, 1993.

I read with interest in the folk tale recorded by Sister Alfwynn from her work amongst  the Celtic peoples of Ireland. I was intrigued by how dissimilar it is to the Saxon account, which goes thus:

A worm came creeping,
he tore asunder a man.
Then took Woden
nine magic twigs
and he smote the serpent
that he flew into nine bits.
Now these nine herbs have power
against the nine magic outcasts
against nine venoms
against nine flying things
and against the loathed things that over land rove.
Against the red venom
against the runlan venom
against the white venom
against the blue venom
against the yellow venom
against the green venom
against the dusky venom
against the brown venom
against the purple venom.
It always gets worse before it gets better...
*Preparing a remedy

In the Lacnunga we are told which these nine herbs are. They are mugwort, waybroad (which these modern people call plantain), stime (watercress), atterlothe, maythen (camomile), wergulu (nettle), crab-apple, chervil and fennel.

The poem also shows us one of the causes of disease; that is the nine venoms that come out of the serpent. It is clear that these venoms are blown about on the wind and when they alight on a man's body they cause disease. Thankfully they may be blown away from the body by the healing herbs and by prayer (without which no remedy will work).

There is an excellent salve for flying venom given in the same poem: "Take a handful of hammer wort and a handful of maythe and a handful of waybroad and the roots of the water dock (seek those which will float), and one eggshell full of clean honey, then take clean butter, let him who will help to work up the salve melt it thrice: let one sing a mass over the worts, before they are put together and the salve is wrought up."

In addition to the flying venoms, elves are a great cause of sickness to man and beast. Indeed King Alfred's physician Bald devotes a whole chapter of his Leech book to remedies for elf-shot. there are many kinds of elves; wood elves and water elves, bright elves and dark elves, but all the elves are of the race of Cain and therefore so hateful to mankind.

A man who has the water elf disease may be known by his livid nails and tearful eyes. He gazes downwards at the ground. For such a man these herbs should be used: lupin, helenium (which we call elf-dock), marsh mallow, dock elder, wormwood and strawberry leaves.

This is a good prescription for an elf-shot horse:

"If a horse be elf-shot, then take the knife of which the haft is the horn of a fallow ox and on which are three brass nails, then write upon the horse's forehead Christ's mark and on each of the limbs which thou mayest feel at: then take the left ear, prick a hole in it in silence, then strike the horse on the back, then it will be healed. And write upon the handle of the knife these words - 'Benedicite omnia opera Domini dominum'.
"Be the elf what it may, this is mighty for him to amend." - Leech book of Bald.

If you are far from a priest and one is struck by devil sickness or is possessed by demons then there are herbs which may help. Chief among these is periwinkle, which should be addressed with respect as "vinca pervinca". Apuleius in his 'Herbarium' suggests mandrake for devil sickness, but this herb is dangerous to obtain for the scream it utters when it is picked can kill a man; altogether it is better to leave these conditions to the church.

I know also many chants which foolish men speak over the herbs to deceive the ignorant, but St. Eloy in 640 AD and many other saintly men since have forbidden the use of such things and I do not record them here.

I hope this brief letter will interest those who, like me, have an interest in the art of healing. Perhaps Sister Alfwynn would care to correspond, then we could exchange copies of our books and thereby enlarge the libraries of our respective houses.

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