Feeling Hag-gard…

I am not feeling at my best at the moment, in fact far from it. So as part of my attempt at rest and recuperation a walk to breathe in the restorative air of Devon’s coastline was in order.

There is something about the whole of the Jurassic Coastline that is amazing, not simply the natural beauty, but also the realisation of the sheer depth of time, and how we are small part of millions of years of activity.DSC_0120[1]

Sidmouth – the location for my walk – is the gateway to the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, and archaeologically there are signs its long history all over town (indeed a previous walk took in some of the town’s features). The start of today’s walk was Connaught Gardens played a strategic defensive position, the evidence of which can still be seen in the gardens still.

The gardens themselves were a fortification, and a lime kiln, and the evidence for the kiln can still be seen at Jacob’s Ladder (and I can really recommend the cake at the cafe….)

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The stormy weather of recent weeks has really played havoc with the coastline, and it took me a while tyo realise that I was standing on top of the promenade’s railings and that the stones had completely covered them!

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I also love the graffiti on the cliff. I obviously don’t condone the damage of a World Heritage Site, but I love to see the care taken by people to preserve their presence.

DSC_0135[1]Back on the beach I started to pick up Hag stones, natural perforated stones which have numerous folkloric meanings and associations. Also known as Odin/ adder/ fairies/ holey/Hex stones they are said to have amazing and magical properties.

DSC_0142[1]Hag stones are particularly prevalent in the folk history of the South West of England, and were used to ward off evil spirits, influence by the dead, and witchcraft. In Dorset fishermen used the stones to protect against witches or spirits from boarding the boat. On Dartmoor they were known as Hex stones, and placed on window sills to protect the house.

Hag stones were worn around the neck to ward of the evil eye and spirits, but also illnesses such as plague and whooping cough, and actually thought to be able to cure a whole range of diseases. They were also used as treatment for snake bites. The stones were also able to prevent pixies, fairies and witches from interfering with livestock, in particular effecting the milk of cattle. If hung over a bed or round a bed post, it would stop Succubus or other such nightmares harming the occupant while they slept.

Moreover it is often said that if you look through the hole of a Hag stone you can see fae creatures such as fairies and pixies, or malevolence that had concealed itself from view.

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Maybe I should start wearing one, I might gain some benefit from its protective and magical nature!

30 Wild Days: day 11 – Daisy Daisy

There are some lovely clumps of wild flowers at work at the minute, but one of my absolute favourites are daisies.

By nice coincidence they are attached to so much folklory stuff. Who hasn’t carried out their own divination and counted the petals of a ‘measure of love’ flower (and who hasn’t fixed the result!).

Nicholas Culpeper talks about the healing properties of the daisy, particularly for inflammation. During the medieval period the crushed flower were thought to aid wounds and help healing. Daisies were also thought to aid “women’s problems”, and in Wales during the Middle Ages it was used to treat madness, small pox and tumours.

Interestingly in celtic traditions it was thought that children who died at birth became daisies

Daisies were also used as protection – children dressed with daisy chains could not be stolen by fairies.

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The Taming of the Shrew

About a month or so ago I was having a meeting over coffee to discuss some future research project ideas. The conversation turned (as I find conversations tend to) to folklore and the odd ways that little stories and nuggets of information get imparted.

In this instance, an elderly lady taking part in an oral history project on farming practices nervously told her interviewer about some of the “dark things” she remembered her father doing.

Her remembrance was of him making what she called “shrew trees”; he drilled a hole in the trunk of a tree, inserted a live shrew and sealed it up.  The woman had no idea why he did this, and was quite anxious of why her father should do such a thing.

Having some vague recollection of something like this (something about shrews being venomous??), but nothing I’d put forward openly, I offered to do a bit of searching to see if I could find anything remotely similar. It didn’t take long; going through some old journals I quickly came across a couple of references to practices which shared remarkable similarities.

Usually called ‘shrew-ashs’, the branches of such trees were thought to be the cure for acute pain and swelling in animals and humans thought to be caused by shrews touching the skin.
From my quick search it looked like the practice was 17th – 18th century in origin, and the most famous incidence was recorded in the 19th century: the “shrew ash of Richmond Park” .

I passed on this brief intelligence, hoping to alleviate the poor woman concerns regarding her father and the thought that he was up to something more sinister.

What I can’t ascertain is why the harmless shrew was persecuted in such a way, and how wide-spread this practice was. Obviously there is evidence in the south-east of England, and my own example is from the south-west, but was it prevalent further north? Scotland? further afield?

I’d love to hear of other examples.