Kay-Nu-Hima was the Japanese goddess of herbs. Polydemna was an herbalist who supplied Helen of Troy with an antidepressant (heaven knows she must have needed a strong one). The herbs themselves instructed Airmed, the Irish goddess of the Tuatha DéDannan, in their own use. And while Cerridwen, the Welsh Mother Goddess, is not precisely a deity of herbs, she nonetheless kept the Cauldron of Knowledge and Inspiration and knew what to brew in it. Whatever the herbs, they hatched the wisdom and talents of the great British bard, Taliesin.

Cerridwen,  by Laura Marshall

Cerridwen, by Laura Marshall

In folk and fairy tales of Christianized Europe, old age, herbs and wickedness seem to go hand-in-hand. (And indeed old age is still not welcome in our contemporary cultures.) The Grimm Brothers’ popular collections notwithstanding, even in the early 19th century, when they were writing and collecting, rural herbalists were still relied upon by plain folk and did not have particularly malevolent reputations. For example, the Buschfrauen, bush women of central Europe, who were said to have hollow backs (likely dowager’s humps), lived in hollow trees (in splendor, one hopes), and who revealed the secrets of herbs and healing to mortal women, supplying the knitters among them with magic balls of never-ending yarn.

The Dziwonzony, Polish wild women of the woods, who lived in underground burrows ferreting out the secrets of nature and herbal medicine are attractive models, too. (These days, I often think I could live like them, in a quiet solidarity with Nature.)

As with Italo Calvino’s re-telling (and my subsequent re-re-telling) of the tale of Rosemary — https://heathcollom.wordpress.com/2014/08/02/rosemary/ — many Italian folktales featuring herbs refreshingly dispense with witches in favor of enchanting stories about parsley girls and marjoram brides.

Plants like St. John’s wort ─ and so many more ─ were valued by the ancient Greeks who placed it around religious icons to ward off evil spirits. Throughout Europe, St. John’s wort guarded against witchcraft and prevented lightning strikes to the house. I used an oil I made from my own plants recently against the pain of fibroids and it helped tremendously. Rural African Americans related the root to a favorite trickster and folk hero, High John the Conqueror, who came out of slave times.

The Spanish Inquisition and subsequent missionaries for “progress” and the supremacy of The Church never entirely succeeded in wiping out the “good healer,” the herb doctor, the wise woman, the medicine man, the curandera, the shaman — those who make a conscious practice of communicating with Earth, listening to her wisdom and utilizing her gifts with care.

La Curandera

La Curandera

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