Chapter seven – Flora and Fauna
by Ilil Arbel, Ph.D.
Tales of plants and animals that have served witches can fill an entire book. Imagine talking cats, killer trees, flowers that make you fly and lambs that grow inside fruit. These are not fairy tales told just for fun; people actually believed in them, and some were even partially true.
The connection to animals and plants goes back to Stone Age predecessors of modern witches, who are still guardians of the earth. The drawings of animals on cave walls show it clearly. The giant cave bear, for instance, was considered the Master of Animals. The hunters worshiped him, and he granted them permission to hunt. Dangerous animals, such as the saber tooth tiger, the woolly rhinoceros, or the mammoth, could only be conquered, or avoided, by magic and ritual.
Later, many gods, demigods and other powerful entities appeared in animal form. The Celtic god Cernunnos, master of the forest and all its animals, appeared often as a stag. Even more significant are Cernunnos’ many appearances as an antlered man. In this form he looked exactly like the shape-changing sorcerer of the Stone Age.
The imaginary menagerie included domestic animals, like the cat, and those of wood and field, such as the hare. The garden contained the witch’s cultivated plants, and the weeds that flourished near by.
Let’s start with the menagerie. Every witch had her “familiar,” an animal that had been given to her by Satan himself. The animal was a pet as well as a demon, much loved and well taken care of by the witch. It received good food, careful grooming, and sometimes even wore clothes during cold weather. The witch protected it fiercely, and killing a familiar was an invitation to serious revenge. In return, the animal spied, robbed, and sometimes killed for the witch.
Funny as all that may sound, the people believed in this relationship. The witch’s neighbors even thought that the animals talked to the witch in human language. This can explain the terror they held for the villagers. If an old woman regularly talked to her pet, as lonely people usually did, she was doomed. A familiar was also recognized by always being close to the witch, usually following her wherever she went, and by its superior intelligence.
CAT Cats are the ultimate Familiars. Everything about the cat was, and still is, magical. Watch your own cat going about its mysterious business. See how it suddenly looks at a corner of the room, intent on something that clearly isn’t there. It can be creepy on a stormy night, even when you know very well that there is no such thing as a ghost! Sometimes your cat, dozing peacefully, suddenly leaps to the next room as if possessed. You laugh at its antics, but what did it really hear there? Even today, wonderful and loveable as they are, cats hold a terror for some people. Some won’t stay in a room alone with a cat. Look at the changing eyes – the pupils are narrow slits during the day and large and round at night. Changing just like the moon. So they imagined that the cat saw the future with those moon-like, magical eyes, and probably also ghosts and goblins. Cats could also forecast the weather. If they played wildly, high wind was expected. If they sat with their back to the fire, no doubt a cold spell was due. And if they washed their ears carefully, rain was imminent. The most feared cat was the black one, considered Satan’s property at the all times. During the Middle Ages people senselessly slaughtered cats for no reason other than the belief that they were demons.
GOAT The goat connection may be even more significant than the cat. It goes back to antiquity. A powerful clan in ancient Greece, the Palentids, claimed they were originally descended from a sacred goat. The horned and hoofed Greek goat-god, Pan, is one of the most important entities of Witchcraft. Thor, the Norse god, was worshiped before the other gods of Valhalla. Some say he existed as early as the stone-age. Thor drove a great chariot, pulled by two giant, powerful goats. They symbolized thunder and lightning. Medieval legends say that the Devil created the goat. Satan himself often appeared with goat’s horns, and sometimes changed his shape completely into a goat. During the Sabbaths, he traditionally came as a three-horned goat, the middle one used as a lamp.
HARE Hares were strongly associated with witches. The hare is quiet and goes about its business in secret. They are usually solitary, but occasionally they gather in large groups and act very strangely, much like a group of people having a conference. A hare can stand on its hind legs like a person; in distress, it utters a strange, almost human cry which is very disconcerting to the listener. Watching such behavior, people claimed that a witch could change her form at night and become a hare. In this shape she stole milk or food, or destroyed crops. Others insisted that hares were only witches’ familiars. These associations caused many people to believe hares were bad luck, and best avoided. A hare crossing one’s path, particularly when the person was riding a horse, caused much distress. Still, the exact opposite superstition claimed that carrying a rabbit’s or hare’s foot brought good luck. There is no logic to be found in superstitions.
SPIDER They are tiny, menacing, and some are poisonous. Yet, they have always been admired for their wonderful weaving and their hunting ability. No wonder they were put on the list of witches’ familiars. Spiders could invade anyone’s house for the witch’s benefit. Also, they could hide in the witch’s clothing and talk to her while she went about her business, perhaps offering her some advice.
CROW The crow is almost too obvious. The medieval villagers considered it ugly, for some reason. Actually, it’s a beautiful, glossy black bird with a truly elegant shape, but there’s no accounting for taste. Perhaps they disliked the crow because it emits a hoarse cry rather than a song, and it’s obviously quite good at stealing things from farmers. The villagers thought the crow spied for the witch all day by flying anywhere it wanted, and then reported at night. And it could easily accompany her on her own flights to the Sabbaths.
BUTTERFLY Few people know how the butterfly got its name. The witch was supposed to change her shape into this insect. She then flew to the dairy, and stole milk, cheese and, of course, butter!
BEE The enterprising witch did not keep bees only for the honey. She didn’t really need that so much. What she wanted was the wax – to make images of her enemies and destroy them in image magic.
TOAD Toads were favorite familiars. They were dressed in velvet, given bells to decorate their legs, and were expected to dance to music (though it’s doubtful they ever did.) The little horns on their head suggested the devil, and the witches used toad’s spittle in their ointments. Toads could predict storms by rushing quickly and suddenly into the water; they could hear the thunder long before humans could. In addition to all these marvelous qualities, old toads had precious jewels growing inside their heads, so it was worthwhile protecting a toad until it reached old age. Of course no one ever saw one – there’s never any jewel in a real toad’s head – but people believed it was incredibly beautiful and protected the lucky wearer from poison.
Let’s step into the magic garden. The witch’s neighbors were quite certain you could recognize a witch by what grew in her garden. If you had a yard full of nightshades, monkshoods, thorn apples and henbanes, it really looked suspicious, because these plants were used to prepare the ointment that helped a witch fly.
The fact that the plants were also good for healing and cosmetic purposes meant little. And some of the plants were not even deliberately cultivated. Deadly nightshade was made into eye drops, monkshood was used to exterminate wolves, and thorn apples and henbanes just sprouted everywhere. They still do. But people found it more exciting to think of them as the witch’s tool of destruction.
It is interesting to note that so many of the plants in the witch’s garden are now recognized as hallucinogenic. All the nightshades, for instance, contain substances called tropane alkaloids. These alkaloids produce hallucinations and trance states. They are also toxic enough to produce insanity and even death if used in larger quantities. The use of hallucinogens go back to ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome. They were also used in Afghanistan, Africa, India and parts of the Middle East. People thought they could help in conjuring demons and as an aid to prophecy. The mixture of Belladonna, henbane and mandrake, when rubbed on the body, produces dreams about flying. These hallucinations feel so real, that many witches believed they really flew. They confessed that to their torturers during their trials, and were burned at the stake. The mixture also produced dreams of changing into animals. Some witches honesty believed they turned into fish or geese, and threw themselves into deep water. Some drowned.
The plants have a good, medicinal side. Henbane is a painkiller. Belladonna is used as eye drops. They were part, in the hand of a good practitioner, of the entire herbal lore, much of which is still in use in medicine. However, the hallucinogens caused more trouble then good, and much of the bad name the Old Religion acquired is a result of using drugs. First, the preparations were given, in some covens, to young people just starting out as witches. The idea was to make the initiation easier and more interesting, but the result was a life-long addiction. It also connected Wicca with the Satanists and with the followers of Voodoo, who used drugs freely. In the history of Witchcraft, these plants and preparations are possibly the worst habit some witches had. It must be noted, however, that not all covens used, or approved of the hallucinogens. Many witches realized that the use of drugs is one of the stupidest and most dangerous habits a human being can indulge in, then as well as now.
BELLADONNA Belladonna, the Deadly Nightshade, was the Devil’s favorite plant. Like many other busy persons, the Devil found relaxation in the hobby of gardening. He tended this particular plant every night of the year, except on “Walpurgis Night,” when he usually prepared for the witch’s Sabbat and neglected his hobby. So this was the night to go harvest some Belladonna, if you needed it. You got a black hen and let it lose. For an unexplained reason, the Devil could never resist a black hen. So he would go chasing it, away from the Belladonna. Now the plant could be harvested without danger to the person. Why should anyone want this poisonous weed, you might ask? Well, if you rubbed it on your horse’s body, it would bring the animal great strength! No record is left of the fate of all those black hens the Devil busily chased all over Europe. Hopefully, they found their way back to the chicken coops.
MANDRAKE The best mandrakes, people thought, grew under the gallows. A mandrake is a strange plant. The shape of its root looks just like a human being. It is lifelike and twisted, and many believed that a small demon lived in it. Capturing the demon brought great power, but it was extremely dangerous. The demon objected to having the plant pulled out of the ground. It caused him great pain, and his agonized shriek could kill the man who destroyed the plant. So a system had to be developed. First, the man stuffed his ears with wax. Then, he dug around the plant until only a few roots held it to the ground. Now he got a dog, attached one end of a long rope around its neck, and the other end around the plant. The man went a certain distance, and then held a plate of food toward the dog. The dog leapt toward the food, and in the process, released the mandrake from the ground. The dog was expected to sacrifice his life for the benefit of his owner. However, as the plant never really shrieked, or made any other effort to revenge its destruction, many dogs simply got a good meal out of it. The trick, now, was to bathe the root in wine and wrap it in silk. This pacified the demon, who now became the owner’s advisor. When all was said and done, the disappointment must have been terrible. After all, a root, no matter how weird it looked, could never talk to anyone, let alone give wise advice. So it was finally established that the tiny demons really preferred the company of witches to that of ordinary mortals.
ELDER TREE If the witch felt like drinking some milk, she entered the elder tree, traveled in it, and settled near someone’s cow barn. The long branches went into the barn during the night, and milked all the cows.
YEW TREE Even without the connection to witches, yew trees had many superstitions attached to them. It was best not to lie down under a yew, despite the nice cold shade. The tree would suck the life out of anyone, as soon as he or she fell asleep. In Sherwood Forest, as in all of England, Yew was used to make bows and arrows. Robin Hood used them all his life. When he was about to die from his wounds at his last battle, he asked his merry men for a favor. He wanted to shoot one last arrow and be buried where it landed. They brought him his old bow, and with a superhuman effort, Robin shot one arrow and died. The men went to look for it and found it had landed in an ancient graveyard, under a venerable yew tree. And so they buried Robin there, in the shade of the tree that gave him so much while he lived. Yew always grew in graveyards, anyway. People believed that the tree drank the poison from the ground which was infected by dead bodies. Naturally, it became known as the favorite of witches – they were known to spend much time in graveyards, anyway.
FIR TREE In Germany, as late as the nineteenth century, people danced around the fir during religious festivals. But the songs were not Christian – they dated back to pagan times. It was believed that an imp lived in the tree, a kind and benevolent spirit. The fir was decorated with lights, flowers, eggs and other such objects. Some believed this was the origin of the Christmas tree.
In the northern countries the respect for the fir is deep seated. It is considered the home for the mysterious King of the Forest. Some people still refuse to cut a fir tree, and if it falls by itself, perhaps during a storm, the wood is not sold, but given in charity.
The garden and menagerie described here were mostly European, but many interesting plants and animals belonged to other cultures. Some were strongly connected to various forms of sorcery.
THE BAROMEZ This combined plant/animal belongs to the Tartars, by the Caspian sea. The Baromez was a lamb. It had superb wool, silky and warm, much sought after. However, it wasn’t born the usual way. In the faraway land where the Baromez lived, certain “gourd trees” produced large fruit. At night, the ripe fruit opened, and the cute, tiny lambs jumped out of the fruit. They were attached to the fruit by an umbilical cord, so they could not free themselves from the tree. This was the job of the enterprising sorcerer/shepherd, who released the lambs, reared them and sold their wool – no doubt for a large profit.
DUCKS Not a particularly romantic animal, you would say. But if you were a sailor, traveling by an unspecified Pacific island, you may have changed your mind. A tree grew with its roots in the water. Giant fruit hung limply over the waves. A sorcerer or witch would come to the tree, sing a strange song, and suddenly the fruit began to open. Inside was fluffy, silky material, attached to the bill of a duck. The duck hung on for a while, drying its feathers in the strong sun. Then it dropped with a thud into the sea and swam away. The sorcerer either let it go or took it home, depending on the ritual needed.
BARNACLE GOOSE Well, if a duck, why not a goose? A real goose, Branta leucopsis, caused trouble during the Middle Ages for both Rabbis and Priests. It nested in the Arctic, and was seen by sailors in grounds which were covered with large barnacles. Naturally, the sailors assumed the bird hatched from the barnacles. The rabbis had trouble deciding if the goose was a fowl, appropriate food for Orthodox Jews, or a Shellfish, forbidden to them. The priests had similar problem. Is it a fish, permitted during Lent, or a fowl, forbidden at this time?
MIRAJ The story of the Miraj comes from somewhere in the Indian Ocean, and it’s probably the funniest magical beast ever invented. It’s easy to imaging two or three hard working witches sitting over a cup of strong palm wine, discussing the hard times, wondering what new enterprise they can come up with. They must have had a good sense of humor, because the Miraj was a killer unicorn rabbit. It looked innocent enough. It was large, yellow, and had a long black horn in the middle of its forehead. The animals around it knew the danger, though, and ran for their lives whenever they saw it coming. The Miraj could eat anything, even animals much larger than itself, such as pigs and cattle. The witch’s job was to charm away and control the Miraj when she noticed one or two infesting the neighborhood. The villagers never saw a Miraj themselves, obviously, but they preferred to keep it this way. After all, what were they paying the witch for? Every profession has its hazards, right? Let the witch face the deadly killer unicorn rabbit!