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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 31st October 2011

I suppose there’s only one possible topic today for someone who is involved in a subject where witches make a frequent appearance.  Back in September, 20th I wrote about the differences and similarities between witches and fairies and I said that it seemed as though witches had appeared around the 14th century and replaced fairies who, until then, had generally been evil and exerted a malign influence on human affairs.

I often talk about ‘home remedies’ based on plant extracts and say that a herbal remedy that seemed to alleviate a condition, or happened to be administered just as a fever or other illness was running its course, is usually said to have been provided by the wise woman in the community. If, however, the remedy either failed to produce a benefit or actually caused harm then it would be the old witch who dispensed it.

Our attitude to witches has, undoubtedly, changed over the centuries. At first, they were persecuted either because they posed a threat to the authority of men or because of religious intolerance. During the tensions between the Protestants and the Roman Catholics, it was, sometimes, useful to deal with tempestuous Catholics on the basis that they were witches rather than having to be open about the religious issues involved.

By the 19th century and into the first half of the 20th, witches were mostly the stuff of fiction with all the flexibility in powers and activities that fiction allows. I think that, probably, was the golden age for witches because it has been succeeded by the American view of Halloween.

That’s not simply a xenophobic statement. The reality is that electronic communications, starting from the second half of the 20th century, have made people more aware of other people’s cultures and, while that has been valuable in a great many ways, it does create an opportunity for business to exploit. I’ve been amazed at just how much shelf space has been given over to the Halloween products by supermarkets. It’s been a growing pattern but, this year, when, we’re led to believe, people are feeling the pinch and cutting back on discretionary spending, there seems to have been a substantial increase in the amount of tat on offer.

In the UK, there is absolutely no cultural or folkloric basis for ‘trick or treat’ and, yet, a great many small children walk the streets on 31st October each year with no understanding of what is going on.

And, of course, with ‘trick or treat’ comes that annual mythfest the poison ‘treats’ story. There is plenty of material online looking for any evidence that poisoned sweets are a reality but I’ll just give this link to the LA Times because its final paragraph mirrors what I’ve written many times about our tendency to overstate one problem and understate actual causes of harm.

Phrases like ‘the dangers lurk elsewhere: in those creepy decorative contact lenses…in fireworks; in choking; and especially, with inattentive or drunk drivers’ are similar to the warnings that, rather than spend huge amounts of time dealing with poisonous plants in the garden, parents would increase the safety of their offspring much more by placing household cleaners and cosmetics out of reach.