The nights are drawing in, there's a chill in the air and I'm driving home in the dark these days. The 31st of October is All Souls Day or Halloween. The name Hallowe'en comes from the evening before All Hallows Day also known as All Saints Day. It is the day when we remember the dead and our thoughts turn to ghosts and witches before we turn the next day to saints and resurrection. The darkness of winter also symbolises death as we wait for new life in the Spring. I'm always pleased when we pass Yule and the days start to get lighter again - even by just a minute a day!
Many of us find it difficult to cope during the darkness of winter; depression, S.A.D., and low spirits can mark the days. In times past, many diseases especially mental illnesses were often though to be a possession by evil spirits and great care was taken to keep them at bay. So to protect our spirits many herbs and plants were considered traditionally to be good talismans against witches, ghouls, spirits and things that go bump in the night! I find it very interesting at this time of year to remember some of the ancient folklore that surrounds the herbs that we still use in our medicinal dispensary today.
Fennel: When hung over a door, fennel was believed to repel witches, so make sure tonight you hang this over your door because you never know whether the witch at the door is in costume or real! Fennel is used nowadays as an excellent stomachic herb in teas and digestif blends, especially if indigestion is accompanied by wind and flatulence.
Garlic: Used to increase courage, as an aphrodisiac, and as protection against evil spirits. We use a lot of garlic today, especially for its antibiotic properties. Often when conventional antibiotics fail, our patients recover from high doses of allicin (the active ingredient in garlic). Adding garlic to your diet is excellent for your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Oregano: A fragrant herb believed to protect the carrier from evil spirits. Oregano is a lovely herb to add to a winter tea. It is antimicrobial and also very high in antioxidants.
Elder: The elder tree was considered a magical tree in the time of the druids. It was often thought to be possessed by an old woman or sage and treated with respect. Witches were thought to ride elder branches as magic horses and if you wanted to see witches and fairies you should bath your eyes with green elder juice (but don't try that at home)! It was considered unlucky to have elder branches inside your house, especially around Halloween, but instead, hanging elder branches or crosses made from elder outside the front door, would prevent witches or evil spirits from entering. Similarly, an elder tree planted in the front yard would help to keep evil away. In Ireland, the elder tree was considered so magical that it was forbidden to break a twig off. Both elder flowers and elder berries are still used today, particularly for their antiviral and anticatarrhal properties.
Rowan: The rowan tree was considered even more magical than elder. In Scotland it was forbidden to use the wood without a special dispensation although it was the most popular wood for making spinning wheels and divining rods. It was planted near stone circles to prevent evil spirits from entering them - although fairies were allowed in! Houses often had a rowan wood lintel beam over the front door to keep its inhabitants safe. It was so closely associated with magic and witches that in 1618 Margaret Barclay was tried for witchcraft in Ayrshire. She had been found in possession of a Rowan twig tied with red thread - for protection. Nowadays, rowan is not used in herbal medicine but the berries, high in vitamin C, still make a great sweet and sour jelly that is served with game.
Mistletoe: Although mistletoe is mainly associated with kisses in the New Year, it was was also consider a protective charm against witchery. On All Hallows Eve (the day after Halloween) a sprig of mistletoe cut with a new knife from the Scottish Errol Oak by a member of the Hay family, having circled the tree three times sunwise and pronouncing a secret spell, guaranteed you protection against witches and harm in battle. If placed in a baby's cradle it would protect them being changed for elf-bairns by the fairies! Mistletoe is still sometimes used in herbal medicine but only under supervision of a qualified medical herbalist. In Germany, mistletoe is made into a herbal drug called Iscador used in the treatment of some cancers to prolong life (Grossarth-Maticek et al, 2001).
Modern 'spirits': If you do suffer from depression, SAD or low mood over the winter do consider seeing a herbalist. Many plants contain phytochemicals that can help to lift your mood: St John's wort, valerian, verbena, passionflower, skullcap, nettle seed, rose, pasqueflower and California poppy to name just a few. A skilled herbalist will find the right combination for you especially if you are already taking conventional medication.
Here's an old Celtic blessing for a safe and happy halloween.
At all Hallow's Tide, may God keep you safe
From goblin and pooka and black-hearted stranger,
From harm of the water and hurt of the fire,
From thorns of the bramble, from all other danger,
From Will O' The Wisp haunting the mire;
From stumbles and tumbles and tricksters to vex you,
May God in His mercy, this week protect you.