I have previously drawn attention to the various herbal remedies prepared and prescribed by faeries. In this post I add a few more ingredients to the fairy pharmacopeia.
We know very well that the fairies collected and processed plants for medicine. Suspected witch Alesoun Peirsoun spent seven years visiting Elfame and had seen the Good Neighbours making salves in pans over fires, using herbs picked before sunrise. The trows of Shetland did the exactly same because, in the story of Farquhar’s Pig (a pig was a small earthenware jar or bottle), a container of healing ointment is obtained from them (against their will) by claiming it in God’s name. This invocation rendered them powerless to stop the human seizing the vessel.
In some sources we are simply told, very frustratingly, that the fairies used ‘herbs.’ For example, in Enys Tregarthen’s story The Pisky Purse she describes “herbs and flowers wet with fairy dew” being gathered to make eye salves and other ointments, but we aren’t given any more detail than this. The ‘green herbes’ used by Bartie Paterson in 1607 are another instance of this vagueness.
Medicines & powders
Luckily, the records are often a lot more specific and helpful. According to the manuscript, Sloane MS 73 f.125, a person who has been taken by elves can be treated as follows:
“Take the root of gladen and make a poudre thereof, and ȝeve the sike both in his metes and in his drynkes, and he schal be hool within ix days and ix nyȝtes, or be deed, for certeyn.”
‘Gladen’ is the common iris, formerly called orris root. When fresh, it is poisonous; dried, it used to be employed as a flavouring. In this form it would at least do no harm, so the patient’s recovery of their whole health, or their death, probably couldn’t be ascribed to their treatment. The rather fatalistic attitude of the text might suggest that the author knew that the treatment would make no difference and that, instead, nature would take its course. (NB: in Norfolk ‘gladen’ denotes the cat’s tail, or bulrush, a plant with absolutely no known medicinal or food properties).
In 1597 four Edinburgh women were tried for alleged witchcraft and for being associated with the “Farie-folk.’ They appear to have been traditional healers, claiming to have been taught their remedies by the Good Folk. Christian Lewinstoun, for example, made one treatment by mixing fresh butter with a ‘sweet wort.’ She bathed one of her patients in woodbine and resin and treated heart disease in another by seething broom and chamomile in white wine. The former herb has many medicinal properties, including reducing the narrowing of blood vessels; chamomile, too, has a range of healing properties. This suggests that we have here a folk remedy with some genuine benefits.
Lewinstoun also, much less wisely, prescribed mercury (both as a salve and as a drink) to at least two sick people. The element is highly toxic- although ‘trained’ physicans used it without hesitation during the same period. Another of the group who faced trial, Jonet Stewart, advised bathing in red nettles and alexanders; she also made a salve by seething alexanders in butter. Alexanders can promote appetite, aid digestion and act as a mild diuretic and disinfectant. Nettles share these properties and can reduce inflammation, so again there were some healing properties to these ingredients and certainly nothing magical.
Elsewhere in Scotland flax (the ‘blue-eyed one of the fairy woman’ or, in Gaelic, gorm-shuileach na mna sith) was used as a medicine as well as to protect people against the elves and the sluagh. In Wales the plant ‘purging flax’ was called llin y tylwyth teg, or fairy flax. Flax seeds have a range of medicinal properties, as their continued use today demonstrates, so that we have, again, a good indication of a genuine folk cure.
See my posts on fairy inflicted illnesses, physical as well as psychological, and on the treatments, which included the use of still and running water and belts as well as herbs. See to my Faery, chapters 12 and 13.