Herbs in Celtic Folklore, Medicine, and Magic, Part 1: Fairy Doctors & Cunning Folk
PLEASE REMEMBER: this blog is for entertainment purposes. No part of it should be taken as medical or lifestyle advice. Be aware that herbs and herbal supplements can interfere and / or interact with RX meds in detrimental ways. Please consult a physician or pharmacist before starting an herbal regime. NEVER eat wild plants unless you’re an expert as poisonous plants can resemble innocuous ones and even edible plants often have parts which are not safe to eat.
Fairy Doctors and Cunning Folk held a place of importance in Celtic culture, both before and
after Christianity came. In Ireland and Scotland, as late as the nineteenth century, Celtic society drew a distinction between the Cunning Folk (in Scotland) or Fairy Doctors (in Ireland) and witches. The latter were considered evil, selfish, and dangerous. They got their power from malevolent forces (specifically the Devil, after Christianity took hold), and they used their power to harm people and animals. Fairy Doctors and Cunning Folk, on the other hand, benefited society. They used their skills and knowledge to help people. Their power, Celtic society believed, was gifted to them by the sidhe (the fairies).
In addition to aiding those who had physical ailments, the Cunning Folk* helped in a number of other ways. They gave advice and remedies for finding lost animals or objects. They were consulted as to the cause of problems on the farm, such as why a cow had stopped milking or why milk wouldn’t churn properly into butter, and they knew how to fix the problem.
Fairy Doctors had a toolbox full of counter-spells to combat a witch’s curse or fairy mischief. They could recognize changelings (sick, bad-tempered fairies who were left in the place of a healthy human child stolen by the fairies). Cunning Folk assisted with childbirth. They also helped the dying pass peacefully to the Otherworld (insuring that their spirits would not linger and haunt family and neighbors). Fairy Doctors were consulted before houses were built as a caution against building across a fairy path. Sometimes, people who built houses without this consultation received the bad news from Fairy Doctors that the newly-built home blocked the way of Trooping Fairies and would have to be torn down. If it wasn’t, the new owners risked suffering from fairy mischief or even lifelong misfortune as a result of a fairy curse. And it doesn’t take much to get a fairy to curse you! Click here and read the post “IRISH FAERIES: They’re No Disney Princesses” for details.
[*The terms "Cunning Folk" and "Fairy Doctors" will be used as interchangeable throughout the rest of the post]
One of the chief tools Cunning Folk and Fairy Doctors had was an extensive knowledge of herbs. It is beyond the scope of this post to discuss all their herbal remedies in detail, but below are some examples of the ways Cunning Folk employed herbs and other plant life as solutions and protections.
Chamomile is a favorite twenty-first century choice for a relaxing tea and Cunning Folk used it for stress-reduction as well. In addition, they used it in love potions, to induce marriage proposals, and for good luck when gambling. It also could be added to other potions to increase their efficacy.
Comfrey was recommended for safe travel. This may be because it often was used in poultices to reduce swelling from sprains and bruises.
Foxglove was a fairy flower. It was said to nod its head as the Fair Folk passed by. Its very name, originally Folk’s Glove, indicated it belonged to the fairies. Fairy Doctors would use it if a child was believed to be wasting away from to fairy mischief. In some cases, the child would improve. There was not always a happy ending, though, to this fairy tale. Foxglove is the herb from which today’s heart medicine, digitalis, is made. The medicine helps give patients a regular heartbeat—but it also slows the heart rate. It is given in small doses and too much can cause cardiac arrest. So this remedy was just as likely to kill as it was to cure.
Rosemary induced sleep and increased mental acuity (perhaps as a result of a good night’s rest?).
Thyme also induced sleep—and perhaps the combination of rosemary and thyme as seasonings for turkey contribute to Americans wanting to nap after eating their Thanksgiving meal. Thyme also increased one’s psychic abilities.
Stinging Nettle was and is widely known in Ireland and the British Isles. The Celts used it for a variety of purposes (ironically including helping reduce the rash induced by coming into contact with it, some sources say). It often was used to stop the bleeding from wounds and recent science suggests that it does have some blood-clotting properties. (Folklore remedies often have underlying good reasons for existing.) The sting of the Nettle was believed to ward off witchcraft. Since Nettle grew in abundance across the Celtic countryside, the chance of getting stung by the plant’s hairs was high, so this seems to be a case of turning a negative common experience into a positive! Stinging Nettle also was seen as a magical boomerang. It removed curses from victims and returned them to the sender. Magical retribution!
I hope you enjoyed the post. If you did, check out "BEWARE THE TREE SPIRIT: Celtic & Irish Tree Folklore."
Thanks as always for reading! Please like and share.
Next week: Herbs in Folklore, Medicine, and Magic, Part 2
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