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Curiosities of Indo-European tradition and folk-lore online

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formation of the lightning into the plant. It is also
a highly significant fact that the marvellous root is
said to be connected with fern ; for the johnsroot,
or John's htod, is the root of a species of fern {Poly-
podiv/m Filix mas, Lin.) which is applied to manj
superstitious uses. This fern has large pinnate
fronds, and is thus related to the mountain ash and
the mimosas. In fact, says Kuhn, it were hardly
possible to find in our climate a plant which more
accurately corresponds in its whole appearance to
the original signification of the Sanscrit name pama,
as leaf and feather. Nor does the relationship
between them end here, for fern, Anglo-Saxon f earn.
Old German faram, farn, and Sanscrit pama, are
one and the same word. It is also worthy of note
that whereas one of the German names of the
rowan means boar-ash (eberesche), so also there
is a fern {Polypodium Filix arboratica), which is
called in Anglo-Saxon eoferfarn, eferfarn, that is,
boar-fern. In all the Indo-European mjrthologies
the boar is an animal connected with storm and

As to another large fern {Pteris aquilina), eagle
fern, a wide-spread belief prevails, that its cut stalk
presents the figure of an eagle, some say a double-


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FERN, 193

beaded eagle ; and, in fact, such a figure may
generally be made out with more or less distinctness
in the section. The plant itself, with its two great
feathered fronds, has the look of a bird with its
-wings spread ; and, as if to confirm the likeness, th^
young shoots, just rising out of the ground with their
downy covering, may be aptly compared to imfledged
nestlings. Pteris, the Greek name of this fern, is an
old feminine form of pteron, a wing, and it seems to
have been given to the plant with reference to more
than its general appearance. The scholiast on Theo-
critus says that this fern was used for rustic beds,
not only for its softness, but also because its smell
drove away serpents. This last quality brings it
into the same mythical category with the ash and
the hazel. It is believed in Thuringia, that if any
one carries fern about him, he will be pursued by
serpents imtil he throws it away. In Sweden the
plant is called " snake-bane."

The luck-bringing power of the fern is not con-
fined to one species, but belongs to the tribe in
general. It resides in the fullest perfection in the
seed, the possessor of which may wish what he will,
and the devil must bring it him.* In Swabia they
say that fern-seed brought by the devil between

♦ Panzer, Beitr. ii., 73, 272, 306.


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eleven and twelve on Christmas night enaUes a man

to do as much wc»:k as twenty or thirty ordinary

men.* Such a talisman must be proportionately

hard to find, and only on Midsummer eve can it be

gathered from

The woodrons one-xught-aeeding feme.*!*

On that one night it ripens from twelve to one, and
then it falls and instantly disappeara " Much dis-
course," says Richard Bivot, "hath been about
gathering of fern-seed (which is looked upon as a
magical herb) on the night of Midsummer eve ; and
I remember I was told of one who went to gather
it, and the spirits whisk't by his ears like bullets,
and sometimes struck his hat and other parts of his
body; in fine, though he apprehended he had gotten
a quantity of it, and secured it in papers, and a box
besides, when he came home he found all empty.** J

Brand was told by a respectable countryman at
Heston in Middlesex, that, when he was a young
man, he was often present at the ceremony of catch-
ing the fern-seed at midnight on the eve of St. John
Baptist. The attempt he said was often unsuccess-

* Meier, Scbn&bische Sftgen, No. 267.
'f Browne, Britannia's Pastorals.

X ** Pandsemonium." London : 1684 ; p. 217. Scott's ** Minstrelsy
of Scottish Border.''


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ful, for the seed was to fall into the plate of its own

accord, and that too without shaking the plant.*

One of the statements made by the Slovacks agrees

with Bivot*s. They say that whoever comes too

near the flowers of fern will be overcome with sleep,

and that supernatural beings repulse all who dare to

lay hand on the plantf

Fennseed has the wonderful property of making

people invisible —

' We hare the receipt of fern-seed, we walk inYiBible.

Shakfl., Henry IV., part 1, sc. 1.

No medidne, sir, to go invisible,
No fern-seed in my pocket.

Ben JoDSon, New Inn.

The people of Westphalia tell of a curious thing
that once befell a man in those parts. He happened
on Midsummer night to be looking for a foal he had
lost, and passed through a meadow just as the fern-
seed was ripening, so that it fell into his shoes. In
the morning he went home, walked into the sitting-
room and sat down, but thought it strange that
neither his wife nor any of the family took the
least notice of him. " I have not found the foal,"
said he. Everybody in the room started and looked
alarmed, for they heard the man's voice but saw

* Brand, L 315. f Yernaleken, Alpensagen, p. 374,

o 2


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nobody. His wife called him by his name, thinking
he must have hid himself. Thereupon he stood up,
planted himself in the middle of the floor and said,
" Why do you call me ? Here I am, right before
you.'* Then they were worse frightened than before,
for they had heard him stand up and walk, and still
they saw nothing. The man now became aware
that he was invisible, and it struck him at once that
he might possibly have fern- seed in his shoes, for
he felt as if there was sand in them. So he took
them off and shook them out, and as he did so,
there he stood, plain to be seen by everybody.*

No mythical gift can be less ambiguous in its
origin than is that of the power of becoming invi-
sible at will The thing that confers it is always to
be understood as pertaining to the mists or clouds.
The poets of Greece and Rome constantly represent
the gods as concealing themselves and their attend-
ants from mortal eyes in a cloud. The northern
nations turned this cloud into a mantle or cap of
darkness, the latter commonly called a mist-cap
(nebelkappe). The king of the Greek realm of the
dead had likewise his dark helmet, which symbolised
the concealing clouds of which his world was made,
and for that very reason was he called Aides, the

♦ D. M. 1160.


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** invisible."* The German dwarfs, those thievish
elves and mist-brewers, who are notoriously addicted
to stealing the husbandman's peas in the field, are
always furnished with such a cap when they are
committing theft, and on many other occasions also.f
The fern-seed derives its power of making invisible
from the cloud that contained the heavenly fire from
which the plant is sprung.

A man may make himself invisible whenever he
pleases if he is possessed of a " raven-stone," a talis-
man which is procured in New Pomerania in the
following manner. When you have discovered a
raven's nest you must climb the tree, and take your
chance that the parent birds are at least a hundred
years old, for otherwise you will have your trouble
for nothing. You are then to kill one of the nest-
lings, which must be a male bird, and not more than
six weeks old. Then you may descend the tree, but
be very careful to mark well the spot where it stands,
for by-and-by it will become invisible, as soon as the
raven comes back, and lays a raven-stone in the throat
of its dead nestling. When it has done this, you
Diay go up again and secure the stone.J In
mythical language, stone and cloud are convertible
terms ; and here we have the cloud of darkness

♦ Schwartz, p. 67. t Ibid., p. 247. t Kulm, Westf. ii., 76.


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198 RAVEy.

brought down by the storm-bird which was sacred
both to Apollo and Odin, the Greek and German
representatives of Rndra (p. 18). The raven's hue
is that of the storm-cloud, but it was not so until
angry Apollo turned it from white to black, like the
swan-white clouds of £edr weather that darken as the
tempest gathers. Once upon a time, so runs the
Grecian story, Apollo sent his feathered attendant
to a fountain to fetch water for sacrifice. The raven
found a fig-tree with fruit nearly ripe, and waited
till they were quite so, that he might satisfy his
appetite. Then, having to devise some excuse for
his delay, he took the water-snake out of the foun-
tain, brought it with the pitcher to Apollo, and told
the god that the snake had daily drunk the fountain
dry. But Apollo, who was not to be imposed upon,
turned the disobedient raven black, besides condemn-
ing it to be always plagued with thirst at the same
season of the year, and to give token of its punish-
ment by its painful croaking*

To return from this digression to the fern-seed,
one method prescribed for obtaining it is, in Dr.
Kuhn's opinion, particularly worthy of notice. At
the summer solstice, if you shoot at the sun when it
has attained its midday height, three drops of blood

* Eratosth. Cat. xli. Schwartz, p. 199.


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FERN. 199

^fill fall They must be gathered up and preserved,
for that is the fern-seed.* According to Dr. Kuhn,
this thoroughly heathen account of the heavenly
origin of fern-seed is certainly very ancient ; so also
is the conception of the Freischiitz or dead-shot, for it
coincides with that of the Cabdavedhl of the Hindu
epic poems. The latter has only to name the object
he wishes to hit, and the thing is done. In the
Mah&bh&rata one of these fatal marksmen wounds
an enemy who has made himself invisible by magic
art. A German freischiitz did almost as well, for he
fired out of the back door of a farm-house, and shot
a kite that was making havoc among the poultry in
front of the house.f

Besides the powers already mentioned, fern has
others which distinctly mark its affinity with thunder
and lightning. "In the place where it grows the
devil rarely practises his glamour. He shuns and
abhors the house and place where it is, and thunder,
lightning, and hail rarely faU there." J This is in
apparent contradiction with the Polish superstition,
according to which the plucking of fern produces a
violent thunderstorm ; but it is a natural supposition,
that the hitherto rooted and transformed thimderbolt

* Beebsteiii, Deutsclic Sagenbnch, No. 500.
t Leoprechting, p. 61. t D. M. 1161.


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200 FERN.

resumes its pristine nature, when the plant that con-
tained it is taken from the ground. In the Thurin-
gian forest fern is called irrhraut, or bewildering
weed (from irren, to err, go astray), because who-
ever treads on it unawares loses his wits and knows
not where he is. In fact, he is in that condition of
mind which we English caU "thunderstruck," and
which Germans, Eomans, and Greeks have agreed
in denoting by exactly corresponding terms.* He
has been crazed by a shock from the lightning with
which the fern is charged like a Leyden jar. In-
stances of a similar phenomenon occur in the legends
of India and Greece. When Cyavana, an Indian
personification of lightning, was pelted with clods by
the sons of Saryata, he grew wroth with them, and
immediately their souls were so bewildered that
father and son, brother and brother, began to fight
one with the other. Sary&ta could not explain to
himself how the fray had broken out ; but when he
asked his herdsmen, and they told him in what way
it had begun, he understood the whole matter, and
exclaimed, " It is Cyavana ! " -f* The madness of
Lycurgus was doubtless the efiect of a like electric
force inherent in Dionysos or Bacchus, the fire-bom

* Viz., pidonarot, angedonnert, attonitns, tin^poyTrrr6s.

t tatepatha-br&hmana IV., i., 5.3. Kukn, Herabk. p. 223.


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god (pyrigen^), whom one legend describes as hav-
ing come down with the levin from heaven. " Does
not this lightning bu-th," asks Dr. Kuhn, " also ex-
plain why it was that, as Plutarch relates, men durst
not swear by Dionysos under a roof, but only in the
open air ? "

The power of disordering the wits which is evinced
by fern in Thuringia is ascribed in Aargau to the
plantain or waybread, which is there called irrwur-
zelj a name equivalent to irrkraut* Moreover, it
is related of this plant by Paracelsus, that its root is
changed every seven years into a bird.-f* From these
data it is to be inferred that plantain is one of the
forms in which lightning has assumed a vegetative
existence, that it first came down to earth as a bird,
and that its septennial metainoi-phosis is a return of
that lightning-bringer to its former shape. It be-
comes a question, therefore, of much interest, whether
or not we can ascertain the bird's name ; but for the
present, I fear, » we must leave that point undecided.
The writer in the Quarterly Review, indeed, to
whom we have already referred more than once,
asserts that the bird is either the cuckoo or the
hoopoe (German, Wiedhopf). This would be wel-

* Rochholz, Aarg. Sag. L, 79. Kulm, Herabk. p. 223.
t D. M. 1165.


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come information, capable of throwing mucli light
on the whole mythical character of both birds, if
it could be relied upon ; but, unfortunately, the
reviewer cites no authority for a fact which is not
mentioned by Grimm, or by any other German
mythologist whose works we have consulted. His
words are : —

"... The plantain or waybread, said to have been
once a maiden, who, watching by the wayside for her
lover, was changed into the plant which still loves to
fix itself by the beaten path. Once in seven years it
becomes a bird, either the cuckoo or the cuckoo's
servant, the ' dinnick,' as it is called in Devonshire,
the German 'Wiedhopf/ which is said to follow its
master everywhere (Grimm, D. Myth. p. 787). The
latter part of the belief is a piece of Devonshire

The reference to Grimm in this extract applies
accurately only to the first sentence. The trans-
formation of the plantain into a hoopoe could hardly
have been known to Grimm, for had it been so he
would not have failed to notice it. He says, indeed
(p. 646), that the hoopoe is a transformed being, but
does not tell us what it was before it became a bird.
I have searched in Paracelsus for the passage con-
cerning plantain, but have not been able to find it.


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The edition of that writer's collected works to which
Grimm refers is not in the British Museimi.

At all events there are apparently good grounds
for including the hoopoe among the fire-bringers,
since, like the wood-pecker, it is said to know how
to find the spring-wort (p. 175) ; and, if this fact may
be regarded as proved, it increases the probability
that the hoopoe's master belongs also to the same

Analogy would lead us to expect that the plants
which were supposed to be incorporations of the
thunderbolt should be able to evince their destruc-
tive powers in other ways besides that of paralysing
the mind. They ought to be able to destroy life
itself, and some of them did in fact give marvellous
proof of their power to blast and kill. It was mani-
fested in the ^oans and shrieks of the mandrake
when it was pulled out of the ground — sounds so
hoirible that neither man nor beast could hear them
and live. Extraordinary precautions were therefore
necessary in gathering the plant. It was not to be
touched with iron, but a cii-cle was to be cut round
it with that metal that it might not run away, and
the ground was to be dug and loosened with an
ivory tool, until the root remained attached only by
a few fibres. This being done, the daring operator.


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whose ears had previously been well stopped with
wool or wax, tied one end of a string round the
plant, and the other round the neck or tail of a
black dog that had not a single white hair, and that
had been brought fasting to the spot. The man
then moved away to some distance, showed the dog
food, and ran for his life. The dog ran after him,
pulled up the root, and fell dead, killed in an instant
by the unearthly yell of the mandrake as if by a
stroke of lightning*

The death-dealing power of the mistletoe is seen
in the legend of the bright day-god Baldr. Freyja
had taken an oath of all created things that they
would never hurt that " whitest" and most beloved
of the gods; but there, was " one little shoot that
groweth east of the Valhalla, so small and feeble that
she forgot to take its oath." It was the mistletoe,
and with a branch of that feeble plant, flung by the
hand of the blind Hodr, was Baldr struck dead.

That such death-dealing power belonged to the
lightning plants from the earliest times appears from
a Vedic incantation which Kuhn has translated.^
It is addressed to a branch of an asvattha which had
grown upon a khadira, or Mimosa catechu^ and

♦ D. M. 115 i-5.

t It is found in the Atharva^reda, iii., 6.


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which was intended for hostile purposes. The in-
cantation runs thus : —

"A man from man has it sprung, an asvattha
upon the khadira ; may it kill my foes whom I hate,
and who hate me. Do thou, O asvattha, tear to
pieces the foes . . . thou who art the companion
of the Vritra-slayer Indra, of Mitra and Varuna. As
thou, O asvattha, dost smash and shatter in the great
sky sea, so smite all those whom I hate and who hate
me. Thou who marchest victorious as a strong steer,
through thee, asvattha, may we vanquish the foes ;
may Nirriti bind, O asvattha, with the indissoluble
bonds of death my foes whom I hate and who hate
me. As thou, O asvattha, ascendest the trees and
makest.them subject to thee, so cleave my foes'
heads and be victorious. Down may they go like
a ship torn from its mooring, chased away , . .
may they not return. Forth I drive them with
mind, and with thoughts, and with prayer, forth
drive we them with branch of the asvattha tree."

There cannot be the least doubt that the power
here ascribed to the asvattha was derived from the
lightning it contained ; and hence the whole passage
has served perfectly, in Dr. Kuhn s hands, to explain
for the first time a very remarkable legend and
custom of ancient Scandinavia. At the battle of


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Fyrisvall, King Erich turned towards Odin's temple,
and prayed for victory over his opponent Styrbjom,
in return for which the god should have his life
after ten winters. When that term had elapsed the
king would cheerfully quit the earth for Valhalla.
Soon afterwards there appeared a stalwart man,
easily known as Odin by his one eye and his broad-
brinmied hat, who put a reed * into Erich's hand,
and bade him hurl it over the heads of the enemy,
with the words, "Odin have you alll" The king
did so, the reed became a spear as it flew through
the air, and Styrbjom and his men were struck
blind. From this event arose the Norse custom of
devoting the enemy to death by hurling over their
heads a spear consecrated to Odin, or received jfrom
him, and crying out, " Dismayed is your king, fallen
your duke, sinking your banner, wroth with you is

The analogy between this Norse usage and the
ancient Roman mode of declaring war has been
remarked by Simrock and others. The Roman
fetialis advanced to the enemy's boundary, and
along with the declaration of war he hurled across

* In the original, reyrsproti, * reed-Bprout.' " One is almost
tempted," says Euhn, **to read *reymsproti,' a rowan twig."
f Mannhardt, p. 162.


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it a bloodstained spear, burned at the further end
or tipped with iron. It is to be infen-ed that this
spear must have been one dedicated to Jove the
Thunderer, fcr that god was specially invoked on the
occasion along with Janus Quirinus (the commoner
reading is Jimo, Quirine). The other attributes of
the fetialis also point the same way, particularly the
Jupiter lapis, or Jpve-stone, which was plainly the
thunderbolt, for so was the Thunderer's weapon
often represented among the Romans as weU as
among the Germanic nations. The same inference
is increased in force by an ancient war custom of
the Greeks.* Instead of trumpeters they employed
in early times priests of Ares, called "fire-bearers"
(Trvp(f>6poi), These men advanced from either army
into the space between, each bearing a lighted torch
which he flung forwards, and then retired out of
danger. This torch was another and stUl more self-
evident symbol of the lightning.

In Odin, the old storm-god, are combined the
characteristics of Rudra, the father of the Maruts
or winds, and of Indra. His ashen spear Gungnir,
like Indra*s asvattha spear, returns of itself to his
hand every time he throws it. Its nature is that
of the lightning, a fact which was fully manifested

* Described by tbe Scholiast on Euripides. Fhoen. 1886.


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when it smote Styrbjom and his army with

Human sacrifices were oflFered to Odin, and hang-
ing was a favourite mode of despatching the victims.
Vikarr, king of Agdhir, being wind-bound on a
cruise, his followers cast lots that they might leam
the will of Odin. The god required that one of the
warriors should be sacrificed to him, and the lots
being cast again, the choice fell upon King Vikarr.
That night Odin, in the form of an old man who
called himself Hrossharsgrani (i. e., Horsehair-beard)
commissioned the gigantic hero Starkadhr to accom-
plish his will, and gave him his spear, which to
human eyes appeared but a reed. Next morning
the king's cotmcillors resolved to proceed to the
sacrifice, but to perform it only in a typical and
harmless fashion. Starkadhr fastened one end of a
calf's gut to the top of a pine sapling that grew near
an old stump, and telling the king that the gallows
and the noose were ready, begged he would mount
the stump; no harm would happen to him. The
king complied and put the noose round his own
neck, whereupon Stark'adhr hurled the reed at him,
exclaiming, " Now give I thee to Odin." Instantly
the reed became a spear and pierced Vikarr through
and through j the old stump broke down imder


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0DI2^'8 SPEAR 209

his feet; the sapling shot up into a tall tree,
dragging the king with it; the oalfs gut turned
into a stout rope ; and thus Odin received his victim.
From this mode of sacrifice, and from the fact that
Odin himself hung for nine days and nights on
Yggdrasil, he was sumamed god of the hanged,
gallows lord, gallows ruler. Hence also the super-
stition, very common in Germany, and not extinct in
England, that every suicide by hanging produces a
storm. Odin comes with his wild host to cany oflf
the soul of his self-immolated victim.

Odin's spear figures in popular tales, retaining
its marvellous qualities, but its form is necessarily
changed; for the spear has long been an obsolete
weapon, and the costume and stage properties, so to
speak, of popular tales are always those of the
narrator's own times. Thus the spear of the ancient
god becomes for later generations a stick which can
send heads flying from their bodies at a touch, or
make whole armies come and vanish in a moment.
This is still grand enough, and some at least of the
actors in such tales are persons of royal race ; but in
the course of time the stoiy descends from tragedy
or heroic drama to low comedy and farce. The
actors in it are ordinary workmen and peasants who
want no armies to settle their quarrels with one


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another. A good sound cudgelling does the business
quite well enough, and so the divine spear is found
in its last stage of transformation as the "stick
out of the bag" of a well-known story .♦ A lad sets
out on a journey, having in his possession three
wonderful things, — a buck-goat that spits gold, a
hen that lays golden eggs, and a table that covers
itself, without anybody's help, with the choicest food.
A rascally innkeeper steals these treasures from the
lad, and puts worthless trash in their place ; but a
stick, that jumps out of a bag in which it is usually
concealed, goes to work of its own accord upon the
innkeeper s back, and with such eflfect that the lad
gets his own again. The stick then returns of itself
to its owner's hand.

The table in this story is the all-nourishing cloud.

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Online LibraryWalter Keating KellyCuriosities of Indo-European tradition and folk-lore → online text (page 11 of 17)