The Merry Month of May

The Merry Month of May
Favorite Fairy Tales of All Time

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Magical Properties of Plants and Herbs

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The magical properties of herbs are celebrated in numerous fairy tales, saga and myths. In the sagas of the Brother Grimm, the plants springroot (or springwort), wonderflower, bird’s nest (Vogelnest), alraun/mandrake and thief’s key all have magical properties that often overlap. According to tradition, the wonderflower only blooms on St. John’s Eve (summer solstice) or every hundred years. If a person hesitates and does not pluck the flower immediately, it vanishes under lightning and thunder. Finding one of these flowers often coincides with the appearance of a gnome or woman in white. These flowers are usually blue (sometimes yellow) and when they appear in a grouping of three are associated with redemption and transformation. In conjunction with these magical flowers, the saga often uses the phrase “but don’t forget the best” (meaning don’t forget the flower itself for its magical properties are worth more than all worldly treasures. German: Vergissmannicht). Over time, this name was changed to Vergissmichnicht (or Forget-me-not) now a common name for beautiful blue spring flower. These plants confer the ability to uncover secret treasure, unlock chests or doors and make one invisible. In the case of Vogelnest, the plant was probably associated with a sacred bird and the notion of invisibility might come from the real difficulty in finding or seeing a bird’s nest in a tree. The alraun or mandrake was prized as the most potent of all plants. Folk tradition regarding this plant is simultaneously creepy and alluring (See Saga Nr. 84 below).


Grimm's Saga No. 304 The Gnome and the Wonderflower

A young, poor shepherd from Sittendorf on the southern side of the Harz Mountains in Golden Aue once drove his flock near the foot of the Kyffhaeuser Mountain and climbed the mountain, but with each step he grew sadder. At the top he found a beautiful flower, the likes of which he had never seen before. He picked it and placed it in his cap with the intention of giving it to his bride as a gift. But as he walked on, he found a cavern at the top of the old mountain. The entryway was cluttered and buried under some debris. He entered, saw many glittering stones lying on the ground and filled his pockets with them. As he turned and left the cavern he heard a muffled voice sound: “Do not forget the best!” He didn’t know what had happened and how he had left the cavern but suddenly he found himself squinting at the sun and heard the door slam shut behind him, which he hadn’t even noticed before. When the shepherd touched his hat, he realized the flower had fallen out of his cap when he had stumbled. Immediately a gnome stood before him: “Where is the wonder flower, which you found?” – “Lost,” the shepherd said sadly. “It was intended for you,” the gnome said “and it is worth more than the entire Rothenburg Mountain.” When the shepherd felt his pocket at home, the glistening stones had become splendid gold coins. But the flower had vanished and to this day the mountain folk search for the flower, not only in the caverns of the Kyffhaeuser mountain but also on Questenburg Mountain and even on the north side of the Harz, because it is said that hidden treasures lie buried there.

Grimm’s Saga No. 84: Der Alraun / The Mandrake

The saga tells of congenital thieves to whom stealing comes naturally. This happens when a man has descended from a long line of thieves or when a person has become a thief because his mother stole while she was pregnant. In this instance he has at least an overwhelming desire to steal (according to others, when an innocent man confesses to thievery under torture) and he is a pure youth but is hanged for the crime and waters the ground with his seed (aut sperma in terram effundit), then the mandrake plant or Gallow’s Man grows at that spot. The top of the plant has broad leaves and yellow flowers. When this same plant is dug up there is great danger for when the plant is pulled out it sighs, howels and screams in such a frightful manner that the person who has dug it up soon dies. In order to acquire the plant, the man must approach the plant on a Friday before sunup. After plugging his ears with cotton, wax or pitch, he goes out with a black dog, which must not have spots of any other color on his body. The man makes the sign of the cross three times over the mandrake and carefully digs up a circle around the plant so only a few fibers of the root remain in the earth. Then he must tie it with a string to the dog’s tail, show the dog a piece of bread and run away quickly. The dog, desiring the bread, takes off quickly and pulls out the root. But the dog promptly drops over dead when he hears the groaning scream emanating from the plant. The man must now pick up the plant, wash it until clean with red wine and wrap it in a white and red silk cloth, place it in a small chest, wash it every Friday and give it a new white shirt every new moon. If you ask the mandrake a question, it will respond and reveal your future. It will tell you about concealed things regarding your future welfare and prosperity. From that time forth the owner has no enemies, can never become poor and if he has no children his marriage will soon be blessed. If you place a coin next to the mandrake at night, the next morning you will find twice as much. If you want to enjoy the services of the mandrake plant for a long time and make sure that it does not die, never overtax it. You can easily place a half-taler coin next to it every night, but maximum a ducat. But don’t do this always only very rarely.

When the owner of the Gallow’s Man dies, his youngest son inherits the plant. But he must place a piece of bread and a coin in the coffin and bury these things with his father. If the heir dies before the father, then the oldest son inherits the alraun, but the youngest son must also be buried with bread and money.