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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 20th September 2011

I’ve been trying to get to grips with the differences between fairies and witches because quite a few stories from plant folklore are attributed to witches in some parts of the country and fairies in others. As I expected, the closer I look at it, the harder it is to understand. What is clear is that the general perception of the differences between the two that is current has not always been so easy to see.

The general perception is that fairies are all good and witches are bad. I’d better stress that ‘general’ because, of course, there are those who call themselves ‘white witches’ and would disagree. But, as we’ll see, you need to try and keep to the main path because the offshoots are many and confusing.

Digitalis, foxglove

Digitalis, foxglove
used by women in Shropshire

I’ll try and look at them separately to start with. So, where do fairies come from and what do people understand by the name? Straightaway the complications start. Almost every society throughout history has had its stories of supernatural beings able to exert influence on many aspects of an individual’s life, but is it fair, as some historians do, to call all of them fairies? If you do, then you have to conclude that fairies were as often malign in their activities as they were sympathetic. There are stories of fairies producing toxic milk and, therefore, killing all their natural children. This leads them to steal a human child to raise as their own. But, once a human child has tasted fairy milk it rejects its mother’s milk. It may be that this story was a way of absolving a mother of responsibility if a baby died.

Somewhere around the 14th century witches enter the picture. This could be a way of demonising the wise or ‘cunning’ woman who used herbal remedies to treat illness and injury and, thus, threatened the power of (male) physicians and apothecaries. There also appears, later, to have been a religious element because there is an overlap between families sticking to the Roman Catholic faith and women in those families being branded as witches.

This might explain why some witches, when put on trial, stood by claims that they had special powers even though such claims were an admission of guilt.

It wasn’t until the late 18th century that the persecution of witches subsided to the point that their role as ‘cunning’ women could be considered and Dr William Withering looked into stories that women in Shropshire villages used extracts from foxglove plants, Digitalis, to treat dropsy.

Meanwhile, fairies took on a political significance. Queen Elizabeth I styled herself as queen of the fairies because that gave her the right to rule Ireland. And fiction authors tended to make fairies rural creatures whereas they had been urban. In Victorian times, when sexual matters were suppressed, fairies became exclusively female and were depicted in scanty clothing.

And those are the stereotypes that have come down to today; the witch, sometimes, doing evil but often just an old woman with a knowledge of plantlore; the fairy, young, beautiful, dressed in diaphanous flowing clothing and doing good.

The two have become so separated that the idea of a tooth witch putting money under a child’s pillow in place of a shed milk tooth is just unacceptable. It has to be a fairy.

I first mentioned the overlap between the two in this blog in July (9th) and I’ve been doing some reading and listening to stories since then to try and get the situation clear in my mind. During this time, I’ve heard from an artist who has been commissioned to produce some work for next year’s 400th anniversary of the Pendle Witch Trials. She wanted some suggestions for plants with witchcraft connections and I was happy to suggest some obvious, and more unusual, possibilities.